According to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, Moscow announced that its Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, and his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, agreed in Ankara on Monday about the need to take “decisive measures” in Syria’s Idlib province. The joint statement underlined the importance of continuing “joint partnerships between our two countries’ intelligence and military forces to establish peace and support stability in Idlib.” The Russian-Turkish meeting precedes a tripartite summit on Syria between the leaders of Turkey, Russia, and Iran in the Russian city of Sochi. As broadcasted by Al Jazeera, Ankara pledged to disarm and remove the militant group that is seizing control of Idlib, while the Russian-backed Syrian government said it would hold off launching a major military operation to wipe out the militant group formerly affiliated with al-Qaeda.
These measures, as reported by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, are due to “terrorist groups operating in about 70 percent of the demilitarized zone in Idlib,” which he then added, “went against the September deal.” Al Jazeera reports that hardcore fighters, rebels from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, continue to expand their reach in the northwestern province along Turkey’s border. The September deal previously consisted of a joint action operation between Russia, Turkey, and Iran to establish “de-escalation” zones in various parts of the country last fall, namely in the northwestern Idlib province. Free of all heavy weapons and militants, Idlib is reported to have become less violent. According to TRT World, the deal also helped avert a regime assault of Syrian government leader Bashar al-Assad in the northwestern province.
The establishment of a demilitarized zone in the region succeeded in preventing an imminent humanitarian disaster. The bilateral cooperation between Russia and Turkey proved to strengthen their commitments to restoring peace and stability. However, a massive bilateral assault against the militants operating in the Idlib region could lead to large-scale civilian casualties and engender a refugee exodus into Turkey. Furthermore, the absence of active violence in the area will not ensure lasting peace. Indeed, it is difficult to institute sustainable peace in Idlib during a devastating civil war; however, ensuring peace will take more than military intervention. Conflict resolution must also include processes such as economic and social reconstruction, demobilization of former combatants, reintegration of displaced peoples, improving and revising political arrangements, and establishing community organizations.
Syria’s brutal civil war has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions since its beginning in March 2011, when the conflict escalated after the brutal repression of anti-government protests by the government of Bashar al-Assad. The devastating war has drawn in multiple foreign powers since it broke out. Russia has been a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime while Turkey has backed opposition rebels. Although the cooperation between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in the eight-year Syrian conflict to establish “de-escalation” zones in various parts of the country last fall did restore peace for a while, rebels from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham continue to seize territory in Idlib.
It is difficult to determine how and when peace and stability will be restored again in the region as neither power reported on the details of what “measure” would be taken to counter the extremism and violence in the area. While the announcement on Monday was interpreted as Russian support for a limited operation in northwestern Syria, Turkey reportedly objects to the idea and prefers a measure that would lead to the isolation of extremists. Regardless, restoring peace and security in the Idlib region hinges on Russia and Turkey’s ability to continue to cooperate with respect to military and intelligence action as well as establishing peace-building processes, that is, preventing civilian causalities and refugee exoduses.