At Saturday’s summit in Istanbul between Turkey, Russia, France and Germany, the focus was on extending the September 17 Turkey-Russia ceasefire agreement reached in Sochi that spared Idlib a full-scale offensive by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his supporters, and to “progress” on the political track.
The proposal to make the current ceasefire in Idlib into a permanent feature of the Syrian landscape is not without its problems.
For Western governments, the primary—and in many cases the only—concern when looking at Idlib is the presence of extremists.
There is a concentration of militants in the province grouped around Tandheem Hurras al-Deen, the declared Al Qaeda formation in Syria, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has formally broken from Al Qaeda’s command structure.
The Turkish government has set up a series of military outposts in Idlib and set about trying to destroy the militant groups by hiving off the workable sections and eliminating the rest through political and kinetic warfare.
Forcing HTS and its leader, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), into dealing with Turkey has created serious ruptures within the different factions. But this is slow-going and has involved the Turks in some short-term compromises which have yet to bear fruit.
A Western diplomat in Ankara put it this way: whatever the problems of Turkey’s approach, “It’s not like anyone else has a better idea, other than killing everyone in Idlib.”
Russia has argued that Turkey’s method is too slow in Idlib, and “the festering abscess needs to be liquidated” in the time-tested manner of destruction of property and people on display in Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, and so many other places.
Moscow’s presentation of a pro-Assad conquest of Idlib as a counter-terrorism measure has found some resonance in Europe. Nonetheless, most Western states have come to see the preservation of the ceasefire as desirable.
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