For over eight years, Syria has endured a civil war between the government of Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups such as Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). After regaining most of the territory held by rebels, in August 2018, Assad began to focus military forces on the Idlib province of northwestern Syria, the final rebel-held area to be reclaimed. At the time, about 3 million people resided in Idlib, many of whom were displaced from their homes while fleeing the control of government forces. Before any action was taken, international actors like Turkey and Russia were expected to express interest in the Syrian government’s plans.
At the start of September 2018, Syrian government forces surrounded Idlib in preparation for an imminent offensive. Besides the threat of violence, the possibility of a chemical attack and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more civilians toward the Turkish border were predicted in the instance of an offensive. Though the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran met on September 7th, 2018 to try to reach an agreement on the future of Idlib, the discussions were unsuccessful. However, on September 17th, 2018, a meeting was held between the presidents of Russia and Turkey in which the leaders decided to devote troops to the maintenance of a demilitarized zone in Idlib. The zone was set to be established by October 15th, 2018 and the agreement included both a “withdrawal of radical fighters” from the area and a removal of weapons from the groups. Though this was a powerful move against an offensive, many civilians had been killed due to violence in the meantime.
Despite the removal of heavy weapons from the area, the maintained presence of rebel groups in Idlib was seen as a threat to the agreement. The deadline for rebels to withdraw from the demilitarized zone passed without much change. Armed groups remained in the area and claimed they would continue fighting. In May 2019, violence continues to endanger the lives of people in the demilitarized zone. Idlib continues to be a target for the attacks of Assad and Russian forces.
The general response by countries involved with the conflict in Idlib has been to gather together in the hope of coming to an agreement about how to best resolve or continue the situation. Many of these agreements were attempted in response to the potential offensive by Syrian forces against Idlib, an event that promised to lead to major consequences for many actors involved. In order to make the best decision regarding the offensive, the countries involved weighed priorities in trying to come to an agreement. For example, Turkey, which had already provided sanctuary for millions of Syrian refugees and which supported opposition groups in Idlib, was attempting to prevent an attack that would result in more death and displacement through discussions with Russia. In addition, Russia encouraged opposition groups to agree to a reconciliation deal with Assad’s forces in order to prevent the offensive. While the discussions between Russia, Turkey, and Iran on September 7th, 2018 were unsuccessful, the three leaders agreed there that a solution to the conflict in Syria could only be determined through a “negotiated political process.” This was a very promising and peaceful claim to emerge from a situation where the threat of enormous violence hung over each discussion.
After the agreement was made on September 17th, 2018 to create a demilitarized zone and remove radical fighters from Idlib, Iranian officials acknowledged the agreement in pursuit of “responsible diplomacy.” This sort of decision-making, facilitated by discussion rather than violent conflict, is admirable. However, this agreement was later broken when the components necessary to its implementation were not honored. Similarly, while Russia recently announced a ceasefire in Idlib on the part of Syrian government forces, opposition groups have reported that strikes are still occurring even after the announcement. The crafting of agreements is promising and could lead to peaceful resolutions, but it is only the beginning. If an agreement can’t be honored, then it falls apart and can lead to further division between groups.
In addition, agreements have to look toward the future to determine any implications that decisions made in the present may produce. Agreements should be made not only based on what compromises or similarities can be identified in the present, but also on the consequences of those decisions or conclusions that are outlined by parties involved. For example, as the Assad forces gained more territory back from rebel groups, they made reconciliation agreements with the people who had resided in defeated cities. These agreements maintained that people could leave their cities for Idlib in order to flee the control of government forces. As a result, Idlib is known as a “dumping ground” for those who were displaced from their homes after Assad victories. More proactive agreements might have considered that the displacement of so many people would leave one area of the country with the highest concentration of rebels and civilians who fled government control. However, the obstacle continued to grow as more people fled, and now, Idlib remains populated by those loyal to the opposition.
In order to promote a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict and the situation in Idlib, agreements created between groups involved must be feasible and easy to honor. If a group isn’t able to uphold its part of an agreement or fails to honor it due to a misunderstanding, either the components of the agreement must be adjusted in order to better fit the situation and priorities, or the promises to be upheld must be made more specific and clear. With as little room for interpretation as possible, the actors involved in the implementation of an agreement can follow through with their commitments in a way that is expected and foreseen by everyone involved in the agreement’s fabrication. While an agreement was reached between Turkey and Russia on September 17th, 2018, the countries disagreed on ways in which certain components of the agreement would be put into action. For example, unlike Russia, Turkey’s decisions were made in light of their continued support of some rebel groups in Idlib. Since each country had different priorities, the importance of different promises and the preferred ways of implementing those promises varied.
However, governments and militaries are not the only actors involved in the Idlib conflict. Though it would undoubtedly be difficult to arrange, in order to create a lasting agreement that promotes peace, all voices involved should be heard and taken into account. The rebel groups should be listened to and their concerns should be considered. If possible, discussions should be organized with representatives from these groups. This could hopefully prevent further anger and continued violence even after peace agreements are put into effect. For example, after the agreement was made on September 17th, 2018, heavy weapons were removed from the area, but rebel groups remained in Idlib. The deadline for the withdrawal of radical fighters passed and the violence continued. Even though an agreement had been reached between the leaders of involved countries, those countries were not the only ones who could affect the situation. Any agreement made without the input of all groups involved is compromised because it cannot predict and prepare for the actions of those uninvolved groups. The rebel groups in Idlib fight for causes. There are ideologies that they support and changes they want to see. After fighting for this long, surrender is not a viable option. Without conferring with these groups on their motivations, their original desires will remain unsatisfied and nothing will have changed from the original situation that led the groups to rise up in the first place.
More attention should also be given to how agreements or actions in general will affect the future. For example, although an offensive against Idlib would have, in theory, ended the civil war and returned all territory to the Syrian government, the question remains of how the people of Idlib would react to this result. Alongside the enormous death and displacement that would result, civilians would be faced with government control again. Most of the residents of Idlib had fled from government forces. An Assad victory might quell violence of rebel groups, but it also gives civilians the ultimate choice between fleeing again or living under the Assad government. Is an end to Syria’s civil war worth achieving if, after such an end, the people of Syria remain divided under the Assad government? Would this lead to further conflicts? A good step toward future-oriented thinking is the question of whether a government headed by Assad would be the best way to unify Syria after an end to the conflict is reached. Effort should be focused on thinking of a government behind which all Syrians can unite.
In general, although it’s necessary to take time in order to make delicate and important decisions, the less time the decision-making takes, the better. As agreements are negotiated and priorities are weighed, residents in Idlib are attacked again and again. Unless acting quickly endangers more people or worsens a particular situation, fast decisions could be the difference between life and death for Syrians. The circumstances in Idlib are dire and they require careful but immediate attention.