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Russia likely to call on a reluctant Turkey to secure compliance

Oct 17,2018 - Last updated at Oct 17,2018

Al Qaeda's Hayaat Tahrir Al Sham and affiliated factions ignored Monday's deadline to pull their fighters out of the U-shaped buffer zone around Syria's Idlib province. The 15-20 kilometre zone was agreed on last month by Russia, which backs the Syrian government, and Turkey, which supports the opposition, with the aim of averting a Syrian army offensive to drive all insurgents from Idlib. The US and the international community warned that a full-scale campaign could produce a blood bath and a flood of 800,000 refugees into Turkey.

According to the Russian-Turkish deal, all heavy weapons; mortars, artillery and armour, were to be pulled out of the buffer zone by October 10 and takfiri fighters were to withdraw by October 15. While there was compliance with the first stage involving the removal of heavy weapons, last Saturday mortars were fired from the buffer zone into Hama and Aleppo provinces, killing two Syrian soldiers. This revealed that some groups had cheated by keeping heavy weapons in the zone or moving them back in, prompting accusations that they had breached the deal.

The refusal of Tahrir Al Sham to meet the second deadline to withdraw its troops is potentially more risky if the group persists. It has hinted that it would pull out while vowing to continue its "jihad" to achieve a "blessed revolution". On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Damascus would give Russia time to sort out the situation but warned the Syrian army would fight to regain the province if the takfiris did not comply with the deal.

Russia is likely to call on a reluctant Turkey to secure compliance. Last September, Turkey was put in charge of monitoring the ceasefire in Idlib and of separating takfiris from so-called "moderate" factions, essentially non-Al Qaeda groups which espouse the same ideology, which have been recruited by Ankara for its "National Liberation Front". It is the Idlib successor to the anti-government Free Syrian Army, founded by Turkey in mid-2011. Ankara has failed to separate these factions because fighters constantly shift between groups and alliances among groups wax and wane.

The largest and most powerful faction with an estimated 10,000 men, Tahrir Al Sham controls 60 per cent of Idlib, including the provincial capital and strategic territory in the south. Two-thirds of the defined buffer zone is held by Tahrir Al Sham, which, if it complies with the deal, will be squeezed into territory at the centre of the province. This being the case, it is hardly surprising that Tahrir Al Sham has not withdrawn while fighters from at least one of its allies, the Turkistan Liberation Front, comprised of Chinese Uighurs, have dug trenches and built fortifications in preparation for warfare.

Last week, Tahrir Al Sham asked Ankara for guarantees for its foreign fighters but it is not clear whether they received commitments on this issue as there is little Turkey can do for most of them since their home countries do not want them to return. Turkey is not prepared to give them sanctuary as they could infect its own population with their radical ideology or carry out attacks on Turkish targets if they do not secure their what they want if given refuge.

The last bastion of opposition fighters in Syria, Idlib and adjacent areas host 3 million people, at least half refugees from elsewhere. Thousands have gathered in camps along the province's border with Turkey, where 3.5 million Syrians have taken refuge since the war began in 2011.

Complaining of the burden of too many Syrian refugees, Ankara has closed the border to keep out the rest, although if Turkey had refused foreign fighters passage to Syria and blocked deliveries of arms, money and supplies to insurgents and takfiris, there would have been no seven year-plus war. Syrian activists demanding reforms might just have secured at least some of their demands and the situation might have stabilised.

If the Russian-Turkish deal fails, its sponsors have two options. Turkey would have to wage war on Tahrir Al Sham and its allies or Russia would have to join the Syrian army and associated ground forces in a full-scale offensive to root out all opposition forces in Idlib. Both these options are likely to be bloody, destructive and precipitate a rush of refugees into both Turkey and Syrian-government-held territory. These options are precisely what the UN and the Arab and foreign powers have sought to avoid but they have no purchase on Tahrir Al Sham and the takfiris.

The third option would be to allow the situation to drift while exerting pressure on Turkey to tackle Tahrir Al Sham and the other takfiris. Choice of this option is likely to prompt the Syrian army to launch targeted offensives against armed elements occupying slices of territory in Hama and Aleppo, which are part of the Idlib "deconfliction", or ceasefire, zone. Damascus cannot be expected to allow insurgents to continue holding these pieces of strategic and politically important real estate.

Once this territory is regained, the Syrian army is likely to follow the strategy adopted for its campaign in Eastern Ghouta conducted earlier this year. At that time, the army focused its firepower on one sector after another, gradually whittling down the area, forcing armed elements to accept amnesty or depart for the north. The final objective was the town of Douma, which fell during April.  Such a campaign would enable civilians to seek refuge away from battlefields and, eventually, return home.

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