On Monday 17th September, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan have agreed with the « Sochi agreement » to forge a demilitarized zone between rebels and Syrian government forces in Syria’s Idlib region but the implementation is complicated.
« It is our common belief that the practical realization of the planned steps will provide an additional impulse for the process of a political settlement of the Syrian conflict » said Vladimir Putin.
Key elements of the “Sochi agreement”
- Both forces will establish a 15 to 20 kilometer (9 to 12.5 mile) wide demilitarized zone around Idlib province by Oct. 15;
- Radical rebel groups, such as al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) will be ordered to leave the zone;
- The Syrian government will gain access to a key highway passing through Idlib that connects the north of the country with other major cities;
- Both Turkish and Russian troops will patrol the demilitarized zone;
- All the heavy weapons of “all opposition groups” will have to be withdrawn by Oct. 10
Even if the Sochi agreement is considered as a Turkey’s diplomatic win by the German newspaper, Deutsche Welle, other newspapers underlined the fact that the terms are quite unclear and hoped that it is only the first part of a bigger process.
“I do not think that this is the Sochi agreement in its entirety,” says Haid Haid, senior analyst at the British think-tank Chatham House.
Three weeks after ….
Three weeks after Sochi, the militant groups in the Idlib zone do not seem ready to implement the deal especially the part about heavy weapons:
- The National Liberation Front (NLF is a Turkish-backed militant alliance in Idlib) has cautiously accepted the deal: it agrees with the demilitarized zone around Syria’s Idlib but it will not abandon the weapons. NLF denied the declarations of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying that Failaq al-Sham (a NLF faction) had begun pulling out its heavy weapons
- Hurras al-Deen, a smaller al-Qaeda-linked group, designated radical by Moscow also refused to implement the agreement
- The US-backed Jaish al-Izza group (affiliated with the Turkish-backed so-called Free Syrian Army) said that the demilitarized zone would only encompass territory currently controlled by anti-Damascus militants. With an estimated 2,500 members, the Jaysh al-Izza group is mainly operating in Syria’s west-central Hama Province, bordering Idlib.
Most of the territory where the buffer zone would be set up is held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Takfiri alliance(known as al-Qaeda in Syria). The terrorist group’s chief Abu Mohammad al-Jolani has previously warned that weapons were a « red line. » However, the group had not responded to the plans when we were writing this article.
Analysts were already skeptical when the deal was signed.
“The application of the agreement is difficult and challenging, especially for Turkey, who will be held responsible in the management of HTS,” says Sam Heller, an analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
He added that the Sochi agreement is “a litmus test for Turkey,” since “Ankara has no choice, in view of the significant damage that could touch the interests of Turkey if the truce of Idleb fell apart”.
Erdogan announced that a subsequent meeting between Turkey, Russia, France and Germany will convene in October, with the delegations expected to discuss the ongoing conflict and the future status of Idlib.
Photo credit : ©Kremlin, Meeting in Iran on 7.09.18