Amidst renewed airstrikes by Russia-backed Syrian government forces on Idlib, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu agreed on Monday, 27th January 2020, that a peace deal over the northwestern province be observed. That same day, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin and several unnamed high-level military officials military officials gathered in Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assaad, according to Al-Monitor. Similarly, this meeting focused on Idlib’s escalating situation, in which Syrian government forces have reached the outskirts of the opposition-controlled town of Maaret al-Numan where a major highway linking Damascus to Aleppo passes through. Meanwhile, the Syrian army has reportedly gained control of 22 other towns, with their movement into a city south of Idlib on Tuesday representing a significant advance for al-Assaad.
As the attack in Idlib by Russian-backed government forces reportedly killed seven Turkish soldiers and one civilian contractor working with the Turkish military and injured 13 people, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has demanded that the Assad regime fall back from Turkey’s 12 observation posts lest they provoke retaliatory operations by its air and land forces. He continued that “every attack on Turkish soldiers or its allies will face retaliation, without any warning, regardless of the sources of attack.” Despite reminding lawmakers that “Turkey’s main principle is not to hurt lives or the property of innocent people,” the Turkish army struck over 50 targets on Tuesday, killing 76 Syrian regime troops.
Erdoğan claimed that Turkey’s “sole expectation from Russia in Syria is that it understands Turkey’s sensitivities,” further noting his disapproval of “Russia’s response excusing the attacks by saying they are not in control of [President al-Assad’s] regime.” Yet, Putin had only just advised the Syrian army to halt its offensive on Idlib early in January to ensure the Turkish forces relocate some of their opposition groups to Libya in order to pressure others to break with the Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) terrorist group – a message the Syrian President allegedly disagreed with, according to Al-Monitor. In spite of this, President al-Assad conceded to Putin’s advice, as the initiative was part of the Russian-Turkish deal over Libya, as well as bilateral agreements. Though this demand is how Moscow interprets its commitment to the 2018 Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia over Idlib, Erdoğan accused Russia of “not abiding by Astana or Sochi,” as quoted by NTV.
Both the 2017 Astana and Sochi accords stemmed from Turkey and Russia’s desire to de-escalate the fighting in Idlib, creating a demilitarized zone under both deals. Although Turkey and Russia support opposing sides in Syria, the agreement stated that neither country should be allowed to further a separatist agenda within the Syrian territory, with Turkish troops occupying areas in north-east Syria and Russian-backed Syrian troops controlling the rest of the frontier. However, as the situation began to deteriorate, with occupation of the de-escalation zone by the al-Qaeda affiliated rebel group HTS in January 2019, alongside the death of 120 civilians in Syria and a further 176,000 Syrians displaced due to a two-week assault in October of the same year, it was clear to both Turkey and Russia that more action was required to “liquidate the actions of terrorist groups.”
Earlier pledges to disarm and remove HTS fighters in Idlib in September 2019 succeeded in preventing a “Russia-backed Syrian government offensive from launching in Idlib which is home to nearly three million people,” as reported by Al Jazeera. It is unclear, however, if the current peace deal will amount to the same success, as tensions between Russia, Turkey, and Syria have rapidly escalated with recent attacks on Idlib, the last major Syrian rebel stronghold since 2011, the beginning of the Syrian civil war. If their past agreements are any indication, the current peace deal will not be completely upheld unless Moscow and Ankara cease their own agendas and acts of violence in Syria, and enforce the peace deal together with the Syrian government.
Many look to the launch of the UN Syrian Constitutional Committee in September 2019 as signs of progress towards ending the civil war, with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem describing his meeting with UN authorities as “constructive and positive,” alongside Russia and Turkey’s undeniable support of the committee’s formation. Yet, the violence of last week’s strikes and retaliatory attacks not only undercut any progress being made by the UN Syrian Constitutional Committee, but threaten the livelihood of civilians in Syria, hundreds of thousands of whom have already been displaced in recent years throughout the country.
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