GP Insights # 288, 11 March 2020
In the news
On the midnight of 5 March, Russia and Turkey struck a ceasefire deal on northwestern Syria's Idlib region. After six hours of negotiations in the Kremlin, the ceasefire agreement was concluded to put a halt to the ongoing conflict between Russian-backed Syrian forces and the Turkish-backed rebels. Both sides have agreed to patrol a seven-mile (12km) "safety corridor" along the strategic M4 highway that dissects Idlib province. The deal hopes to bring stability and address the humanitarian crisis in the region and facilitate the return of refugees to their homes. More than a million people are said to have been displaced since Syria launched its offensive in Idlib province in December. Both leaders of Russia and Turkey are also committed to further talks in the days ahead to discuss critical details.
There was no role of Syria in the process of the proposal of the ceasefire agreement. Syria sees this deal as not a permanent solution but temporary freezing of the conflict. The fact that the Syrian leaders would respect this deal is questionable as it had previously resisted to come to a ceasefire and not stop the offensive in Idlib. Its efforts to retain Idlib, the last stronghold of Syrian rebels remain a priority.
Issues at large
The conflict in Idlib has long been a pressing issue for both Russia backed Syrian forces and the Syrian rebels. The recent developments of intensifying the attacks on each other and the displacement of thousands of migrants were predictable. When in 2011, civil war broke out in Syria, the government forces and their allies fought hard against the rebels and retook Syria's major urban and strategic areas. The opposition fighters and civilians were forced to move to Idlib against the offensive of Assad's regime. Since then the province's population has more than doubled, to about three million. Devastated by violence, this displaced population is mostly impoverished and rely on some form of humanitarian aid.
Assad and his allies, especially Russia, are now pushing to retake Idlib. Their interests lie in retaining their control over the strategic location of Idlib and not pay heed to the population of Idlib. Russian backed Syrian forces consider the Syrian rebels as terrorists and they have launched attacks under the guise of fighting terrorism, leaving civilians as the worst affected. From the Syrian government perspective, the new deal is not going to stop but continue the offensive against rebels.
Russia and Turkey have backed opposite forces in the Idlib region, and the fighting has been ferocious in the last few weeks pushing both sides to the brink of war. The agreed ceasefire deal will see the Russian side protecting its military bases in Syria and holding on to the territorial gains made by the Syrian army, without spoiling its relations with Turkey. Turkey has demanded the European Union's support for its actions in Syria and last week opened its border with EU member Greece to let the migrants reach Europe. Russia has been offering help to Turkey since its western allies were hesitant to offer a strong partnership.
First, there is a rapid deterioration in the conditions of the civilians and displaced people over the past few months. The air and ground attacks in Idlib have resulted in people pushing to cross borders despite the harsh weather conditions. The recent ceasefire deal is far from addressing the woes of the migrants, civilians and does not talk about the migrant crisis. The previous ceasefire deals have not yielded much and were never permanent. In all probability, people are going to migrate in large numbers for their survival and look for the support of other governments. Hence the ceasefire may stop the fighting, but not the migration. The impact of the conflict on the Syrians in Idlib will continue with no sustainable peace in sight.
Second, the ceasefire deal remains mostly in favour of Russia. Turkey's position on openly blaming the US for supporting a coup against their government and their falling apart with Europe after allowing migrants to cross EU borders is helping Russia establish itself as a trusted ally in the region. Russia would court Turkey to contain western influence in Syria. While the geopolitics continue to oscillate between Russia, Turkey, and Syria, the region could be looking at another migrant crisis and a backlash from Europe. Taking lessons from its past, Europe is equipped enough to draw its boundaries on the entry of refugees.