Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week agreed to establish a buffer zone in Syria’s Idlib province between the government and opposition forces. What factors will make it hold?
Under the agreement, rebels must vacate the 9- to 12-mile buffer zone along the border of the Idlib region. Russian and Turkish troops will patrol the zone, which is set to take effect on Oct. 15. Rebels and other extremist fighters would have to leave the buffer area with their tanks and rocket launchers by Oct. 10.
Almost 100 percent of the opposition groups are under Turkish command, said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, who spoke with the PBS NewsHour’s Nick Schifrin on Monday. “If [the opposition groups] conduct any significant action without Turkish permission, they risk losing everything,” including financial, diplomatic and military support, he said.
Russia, which is allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, opposes an all-out assault on Idlib province, because the onus of the campaign’s success would fall on them, Lister said. “Idlib is a huge military undertaking. It’s a very mountainous terrain with a very widely dispersed population,” he said. “All of those things are a significant obstacle for the Russians.”
As for the United States, the core objective is still a political settlement in which the opposition has a role, Lister said. If the regime took Idlib entirely from opposition groups, they would become irrelevant in negotiations. But “if this agreement goes forward, and Idlib with a less extremist influence remains under territorial control, then we have a real opposition presence (at) the negotiating table,” which may result in an agreement that the U.S. could support, he said.
Before the agreement was announced, residents of the province had been bracing for a major offensive by the Syrian government to take back the last major rebel stronghold. The population of Idlib is about 1 million, but another 1.5 million people have taken up residence in nearby camps to escape fighting in other parts of the country.
The United Nations had warned that an all-out assault by the Syrian regime and its allies on Idlib could be the “worst humanitarian disaster” of the 21st century.