A deal between Russia and Turkey to create a “demilitarised zone” on the borders of Idlib may have avoided a bloody showdown endangering nearly three million civilians. But while it may grant a temporary reprieve for residents of the northern province, potential spoilers lie ahead.
The deal will see the creation of a buffer zone some 15 to 20 kilometres deep around the frontlines of Idlib, patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops. "Radical" rebel groups who currently occupy those areas will be forced to withdraw deeper into the province.
Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the move would “prevent a humanitarian tragedy” following four hours of talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
After living under the threat of a government assault for weeks, the news was greeted with relief by residents of Idlib.
“I feel very happy tonight because the situation here did not allow for a disaster like that to happen,” said Qusay Noor, speaking from the town of Mara Al Nu’man. “People are relieved. They will have some time to get their bearings.”
The agreement solves some immediate problems for both Russia and Turkey. Moscow was keen to halt drone attacks against its Hmeimim base in Latakia, which a buffer zone will go some way to achieving. Turkey, which backs a number of rebel groups in the province and has a dozen military observation posts scattered around its edges, aimed to delay a government attack to give it more time to deal with radical groups in Idlib and prevent another wave of refugees heading to its border.
The Syrian state news agency said the government “welcomed any initiative that stops bloodshed and contributes to reestablishing security and stability,” but the deal is something of a setback for Damascus, which has repeatedly expressed a desire to recapture all of the province as quickly as possible.
It was not all bad news, however. The agreement also states that the M4 and M5 highways that run through the province will be opened to traffic by the year’s end – which was a key aim of the planned government offensive.
At the very least, a potential humanitarian disaster has been delayed. But the deal also adds another layer of complexity to a volatile area that has seen similar deals reneged upon in the past.
The announcement of de-escalation zones in Idlib and other parts of the country in May last year was followed by a sharp uptick in government airstrikes over the next few months, which caused massive civilian casualties and saw medical facilities targeted.
“Even before the ink is dry on the deal, spoilers will be plotting to undermine it,” said Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK Crisis Campaigns Manager. “These include figures within Assad’s regime ... and extremist armed groups seeking to impose their own authoritarian will on the region.”
He continued: “Russia also has form in breaking agreements it has entered into, including numerous attacks on civilians in so-called de-escalation zones. We’ll see in the days ahead if Russia and Turkey do have the power to ensure civilians are protected or if it is yet another false start undermined by competing warlords.”
One of the biggest potential spoilers is the very group that Russia and Syria were keenest to confront militarily – the former Al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), an extremist rebel group of some 10,000 fighters that controls around two thirds of Idlib.
The group has spoken out vehemently against any cooperation with Turkey in public, and vowed to fight to the death rather than give up its weapons. But Ankara has sought to pressure the group to submit to its direction. This deal is likely to do just that, according to Charles Lister, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute.
"The introduction of a so-called demilitarised zone – this actually looks more like a 'de-extremist zone' – places a great deal of extra pressure on HTS to abide by something that it'll find extremely hard to justify internally," he told The National.
“This undoubtedly raises the likelihood of HTS breaking apart into multiple sub-factions, with some willing to abide by the agreement and others who will refuse and insist on resisting.”
How HTS reacts will be key to the survival of the agreement. One official from the group posted a message on Telegram that suggested it would resist attempts to disarm.
“Whoever asks you to surrender your weapon, he deserves most to be fought, ahead of others,” wrote Abu Al Yaqadhan Al Masri, according to a translation by Sam Heller, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“The coming days are pregnant with surprises, so prepare for epic battles,” he added.
However, Turkish-backed rebels welcomed the move. “It buries Assad's dreams of imposing his full control over Syria," Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army official, told Reuters.
Beyond the immediate changes on the ground, Russia has scored a diplomatic victory by striking a deal with Turkey, one which avoids damaging an important strategic relationship with Ankara, while achieving its own aims in Syria.
“Russia doesn’t like the rebels and they want to help Assad lock down his victory, but they also have strong incentives to continue courting the Turks,” said Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation think tank.
“Syria is just a small part of what Putin cares about. If he can just make the Syrian conflict quiet and unthreatening with Assad still in power, then that’s great. Then Russia has won the war, more or less.”
Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a 32-year-old teacher living in the eastern countryside of Idlib, told The National he had mixed emotions about the deal.
“After seven years, if we trusted anyone we would be fools. Whenever we trust anyone they trick us,” said Mr Alhamdo, who lived through the siege of Aleppo before arriving in Idlib.
He added that he was “so happy, and so sad” about the deal, because it left them in a state of limbo.
“People might be able to live again. Children might know there is tomorrow without planes. But we are still in nowhere. Refugees forever.”