Residents of the rebel-controlled northern Syrian province of Idlib were waiting on Monday to find out details of a plan brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey to establish a “de-escalation zone” there.
On Sunday, the Turkish military moved troops and approximately 80 vehicles, including tanks, to positions along its border with Idlib. The semi-official Turkish news agency Anadolu said the troops were reinforcements for Turkish forces already deployed along the border.
The troop movements come after an agreement reached on Friday between Iran, Russia and Turkey at talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Turkey has previously sent troops into Syria to support rebel groups fighting the government of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad and to stop Kurdish Syrian militias from taking control of territory along its border. That operation, dubbed “Euphrates Shield” by the Turkish military, began in 2015 and ended earlier this year.
Reuters has reported that each of the three countries will each send about 500 observers to Idlib and that the Russians deployed would be military policemen.
But as of Monday, many details of the plan were still unclear. Idlib had a population of about 1.5 million people prior to the beginning of Syria’s civil war six years ago, and though many people have fled the violence there, tens of thousands have recently been relocated to the province as part of deals brokered in other parts of the country.
“There is concern, especially since it is not known what the next steps are,” said a Syrian journalist living in Idlib.
One issue so far unresolved is the fate of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, an alliance of rebel groups that controls much of the province. The grouping is dominated by Fatah Tahrir Al Sham, which was formerly known as Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s formal affiliate in Syria.
The journalist said there were reports of defections by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham fighters to other groups, but that the extent of the defections was unclear.
Imad Eddin Mujahid, a spokesman for Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, rejected the Astana deal, characterising the talks as an attempt to return Idlib to the control of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s government.
Hayat Tahrir Al Sham “will continue in the path of jihad and revolution until fulfilling victory,” Mr Mujahid said on the social media site Telegram on Friday.
Turkey’s involvement in Idlib is longstanding. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan first called for Mr Al Assad to step down in 2011, and by 2012 Turkey was providing widespread support for the rebels who had picked up arms against him, as well as taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict. But whether Turkey is a saviour or a dangerous agitator remains an open question in Idlib.
“For some people, Turkey is considered a real partner in the solution in Syria,” said Muhammed Abdin, an anti-government activist in Idlib. “So for Turkish forces to enter as a separation force between the opposition and the regime forces is normal. Others reject the entrance of the Turkish army and fear that the area will become part of Turkey. They especially worry that Turkey will become the decision maker of the opposition.”
Last week’s talks were the sixth round of negotiations held in Astana, which take place outside the auspices of the United Nations. The UN has sponsored peace talks in Geneva that have produced few results, partly because the Syrian government has refused to recognise negotiators from the opposition side and the opposition has had difficulty agreeing on its representatives.
A member of one of the rebel groups that receives Turkish support and who was present in Astana said the deployment of Turkish troops would be a positive development.
“We as a rebel group demanded that the state that supports us be in charge of monitoring the ceasefire in the north,” Muhannad Jnaid, a member of a group of rebels known as Jeish Al Nasr, said.
“Ceasefire and de-escalation zones are meant to create an environment for the success of a political settlement based on the UN resolutions and the UNSC decisions as embodied in the political process that is sponsored by the UN in Geneva.”
But Mr Jnaid also hit on a key sticking point for ending the conflict: the fate of Mr Al Assad, who has said he will not step down as part of any deal.
“Disarmament will only take place after the success of the political process and achieving political transition with the departure of the head of the regime and all the commanders whose hands are stained with the blood of the Syrian people,” he said.
Idlib is the fourth place where Iran, Russia and Turkey have agreed to a de-escalation zone. The other three zones – one in southern Syria, one in the central province of Homs, and one on the outskirts of Damascus – have already been implemented, with mixed success. Fighting still occurs in all three of the existing zones with varying intensity.
*Additional reporting by Reuters