The Turkey-Russia Sochi Agreement in September won Idlib a reprieve from what had seemed to be an imminent and catastrophic offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and his Russian and Iranian patrons against the last insurgent-held province.
The ceasefire was meant to provide space for Turkey to dismantle the radical insurgents. Instead, those radicals consolidated their dominance in Idlib and the ceasefire has been visibly fraying. How to proceed is a matter of domestic security for the West.
The Sochi ceasefire favoured Russia and thus Assad and Iran. Militarily, the ceasefire left Iran surrounding Idlib, poised to attack, and carved the “de-militarised zone” entirely out of insurgent territory, weakening their position. Politically, Sochi diverted the focus from the crimes against humanity and regional instability entailed in an Idlib attack to jihadist insurgents, and put the onus on Turkey to deal with them.
If Turkey destroys the jihadists, it eliminates the greatest obstacle to Syria’s reconquest of Idlib and the dire fallout that would follow. If Ankara fails, Sochi implicitly legitimises a pro-regime military campaign and the same dire results.
The terrorism pretext for the pro-Assad coalition might not be very convincing, given the records of Iran, Assad, and Russia when it comes to al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS), but framing the operation as counter-terrorism is likely to dampen international protests.
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