TSC IntelBrief: Deconfliction and Partition in Northern Syria
September 29, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front
• A Russian/Iranian/Turkish plan to temporarily partition parts of Idlib province in northern Syria is progressing despite tensions.
• Turkey wants to secure its southern border while Iran and Russia want to secure land routes towards the coast.
• On September 25, Turkey condemned Russian airstrikes that killed 37 civilians in Idlib saying it could lead to another ‘Aleppo’.
• The fate of al-Qaeda in Syria also rests on what happens in Idlib, with the terrorist group facing increasing internal and external pressure.
What may be one of the final chapters of the military conflict in Syria’s civil war is unfolding in the northern region of Idlib, the last province solely under rebel control. With the U.S. reaching the limits of its influence and power projection as it maintains its focus on the so-called Islamic State, other state actors—Russia, Turkey, and Iran—are pushing to create realities on the ground that will translate into lasting geopolitical power. Meanwhile, the most powerful non-state actor in northern Syria, al-Qaeda, is under tremendous pressure from external military forces, compounded by its own internal divisions.
A recent agreement in the long-running Astana talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran on resolving the conflict calls for a temporary partition of Idlib into a fourth ‘deconfliction zone’ where fighting will be suppressed. It is the first concrete agreement for deploying armed ‘peace keepers’ or monitors in a six-year civil war that has killed nearly a half million people – and one of the more significant results to have come from the talks in years. Under the agreement, which will be in force for six months, the three nations will monitor and enforce a ceasefire between Assad regime forces and rebel forces in and around Idlib. Turkey will control a zone to the north along its border, Syria and Iran to the southeast, and Russia in between.
The results of this partition will be long-lasting. In Idlib proper, Turkey will likely have the greatest influence, more so than the Assad regime or any rebel group. The “deconfliction” agreement also puts pressure on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the most recent name for al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. It is clear under the new Astana agreement that HTS will be geographically isolated in the deconfliction zone and then likely targeted by joint military action by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. HTS has been the strongest rebel/terrorist group in Idlib for several years; even with increased fighting with the Turkish-supported Ahrar al-Sham. Far more than the Islamic State, HTS has tried to win local support; embedding itself into governing councils in areas where it has an effective presence. That hasn’t stopped numerous assassinations of high-level HTS figures—such as Abu Mohammed al-Sharie on September 13—and many defections.
The impending systematic targeting of HTS in its last stronghold has local councils and organizations trying to separate themselves more clearly from the terrorist group, creating a feedback loop that could very well result in a severe dismantling of the HTS as a governing force, though it will remain a powerful terrorist threat for some time. All three countries—Russia, Iran, and Turkey—have agreed on targeting HTS in Idlib, though their overall Idlib working agreement is not without tensions. On September 25, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu condemned a recent Russian airstrike in Idlib that killed at least 37 civilians. He warned that continued ‘arbitrary bombing’ could lead to ‘another Aleppo’, referring to the humanitarian disaster that was inflicted on that city last year. Still, if the agreement does hold and take effect, the geopolitical consequences for the region and beyond will be significant.
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