It’s not exactly a moment for celebration, but perhaps one for cautious relief in a conflict that has had all too little of it. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed today after talks in Sochi to work together to create a 9–15-mile buffer zone between rebel and pro-government forces in Syria’s Idlib province, with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu saying the agreement means there will be no new offensive into Idlib by the Syrian military and its allies. According to Putin, the zone will be established by Oct. 15.
U.N. officials have warned that an all-out assault on Idlib could create the “worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.” The area, one of the last major rebel-held strongholds in the country, is home to about 3 million people, more than a million of whom are displaced from other parts of Syria. Over the last few weeks, as regime forces have been stepping up airstrikes and mustering reinforcements, residents have been preparing for an all-out attack and held a mass rally Friday against the looming assault.
The crisis had implications beyond Idlib itself. Turkey already hosts 3.5 million refugees from the Syrian conflict and has no desire to take in more. Under a 2016 agreement with the European Union, Turkey has worked to prevent the historic flow of refugees that has roiled politics in several European countries, but Erdogan has hinted that deal may no longer be sustainable in the face of mass displacement from Idlib. Reports that Syria was planning to use chemical weapons in Idlib have also led the U.S. to warn of another round of airstrikes against the Assad regime.
Obviously, it’s too early to assume that all of these scenarios are off the table. The agreement calls for “radically minded” jihadist groups to leave the de-escalation zone. This includes Tahrir al-Sham, the rebranded new incarnation of al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which has become militarily dominant in the area and is often intermingled on the ground with more “mainstream” rebel groups backed by Turkey and others. What happens if the jihadists don’t pull out? If they launch attacks, it could give Syrian forces pretext to attack them—as well as other rebel groups. Russia and its allies have also frequently violated other de-escalation zones. In fact, of the zones agreed to by Iran, Turkey, and Russia last year, Idlib is the last one left. As Daniel Serwer writes, “To be effective, civilian protected zones would require the presence and active assistance of impartial military forces, which simply don’t exist in Syria.”
Washington has been quietly ramping up its diplomatic efforts in Syria, though primarily aimed at blunting Iranian influence rather than pressuring Assad himself. President Trump did tweet on Sept. 3 that “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province,” warning of a “potential human tragedy.”
But the primary actor here is increasingly Turkey. Erdogan has not only been rallying world opinion against an Idlib invasion; he also he has the boots on the ground to back them up. Turkey launched a military incursion into Syria in 2016 aimed mainly at containing the spread of the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia, and in the process Turkey has built a significant level of influence in Northern Syria, including 12 military observation posts around Idlib—with the tacit agreement of the local jihadists. And while Turkey and Russia have been on opposite sides of the Syrian war, increasingly cordial relations between Moscow and Ankara also gave Erdogan more leverage.
Some observers are now even discussing the possibility of a Turkish-backed protectorate in Northern Syrian, akin to the semi-independent Turkish-backed Republic of Northern Cyprus. That presents its own complications—for one, it could drive the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds even further into an alliance of convenience with the Assad regime.
For now, if this deal really does indefinitely delay a full-scale assault on Idlib, it may be the best outcome we can hope for. But seven years into the ever-mutating war in Syria, the situation is unlikely to stay static for long. Bashar al-Assad has vowed to retake “every inch” of Syrian territory. And although he remains heavily dependent on Russian support, he’s likely to view today’s agreement as a delay rather than a defeat.