Turkey, Rus­sia co­op­er­a­tion over Idlib con­tin­ues amid wor­ry­ing re­gional de­vel­op­ments

De­spite some re­cent ten­sions in Idlib, par­tic­u­larly the grow­ing strength of ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions like the HTS, Turkey is de­ter­mined to keep co­op­er­at­ing with Rus­sia to es­tab­lish peace in the re­gion through the Sochi deal

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Politics - NUR ÖZKAN ERBAY - ANKARA

is de­ter­mined to con­tinue its close co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia in north­west­ern Syria’s Idlib fol­low­ing wor­ry­ing de­vel­op­ments in the prov­ince re­gard­ing the strength­en­ing of cer­tain ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“All ef­forts are be­ing made to main­tain the cease-fire and sta­bil­ity un­der the Sochi agree­ment. Our close co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia con­tin­ues in this man­ner,” De­fense Min­is­ter Hu­lusi Akar said on Satur­day.

Akar’s re­marks came af­ter a meet­ing with Chief of Gen­eral Staff Yaşar Güler, Land Forces Com­man­der Ümit Dün­dar and In­tel­li­gence Chief Hakan Fi­dan in the south­ern bor­der prov­ince of Hatay to dis­cuss the lat­est de­vel­op­ments in Idlib.

On Thurs­day, me­dia out­lets re­ported that af­ter two weeks of clashes, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) ter­ror­ist group and the Free Syr­ian Army-backed Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion front (NLF) agreed on a ceasefire. As a re­sult of the clashes, the NLF an­nounced that it took con­trol of the town of Salwa in the Idlib coun­try­side; whereas the HTS an­nounced that it took con­trol of ar­eas in Idlib’s south, in­clud­ing al-Faqi, alFat­ti­rah, Sfouhan, Ourembe and Tar­malah.

The clashes started in late De­cem­ber in Aleppo and in­ten­si­fied in the last two days, spread­ing to Idlib’s north and south­east, in­clud­ing the western coun­try­side of Aleppo prov­ince, the town of At­meh, the tent area in Idlib and the north­west­ern Hama prov­ince.

The re­ports dur­ing the clashes and their af­ter­math are con­sid­ered to be alarm­ing by many due to the pos­si­bil­ity that it may harm a deal be­tween Turkey and Rus­sia that was signed to es­tab­lish peace in the re­gion. Fol­low­ing


a meet­ing last Septem­ber in the Rus­sian city of Sochi be­tween Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan and Rus­sian coun­ter­part Vladimir Putin, the two sides agreed to set up a de­mil­i­ta­rized zone in Idlib - in which acts of ag­gres­sion are pro­hib­ited.

Ac­cord­ing to the 10-ar­ti­cle mem­o­ran­dum be­tween Ankara and Moscow, the Idlib de-es­ca­la­tion area will be pre­served, and Turk­ish ob­ser­va­tion posts will be for­ti­fied and con­tinue to func­tion. Rus­sia will also take all nec­es­sary mea­sures to en­sure that mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions and at­tacks on Idlib are avoided, and the ex­ist­ing sta­tus quo is main­tained. The agree­ment also en­vis­ages the re­moval of “all rad­i­cal ter­ror­ist groups” from the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone by Oc­to­ber 2019.

Ac­cord­ing to Ömer Özk­izil­cik, a se­cu­rity an­a­lyst at the Foun­da­tion for Po­lit­i­cal, Eco­nomic and So­cial Re­search (SETA), there is no con­firmed in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing cease-fire agree­ment be­tween HTS and NLF al­though it is con­firmed that the group con­trols 70 per­cent of the prov­ince mil­i­tar­ily.

Ex­press­ing that, in his opin­ion, the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Sochi deal may be in­ter­rupted due to this ex­pan­sion of the HTS, Özk­izil­cik said that de­spite these neg­a­tive de­vel­op­ments, the agree­ment is far from fail­ing.

“This sit­u­a­tion does not mean that Sochi agree­ment will be sus­pended,” he said, un­der­lin­ing that nei­ther Turkey nor Rus­sia would com­pro­mise from their stance in the prov­ince.

Turkey des­ig­nated the HTS as a ter­ror­ist group in Au­gust 2018. The ter­ror­ist group is the most pow­er­ful ter­ror­ist al­liance in Idlib, the last ma­jor op­po­si­tion-con­trolled en­clave out­side Bashar As­sad’s con­trol. Af­ter the fall of Aleppo in Novem­ber 2016, dozens of op­po­si­tion groups, in­clud­ing Ahrar al-Sham and the HTS, squeezed into Idlib.

The mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion groups in the re­gion are also hold­ing their ap­pre­hen­sive stance against HTS’s over­look­ing of the deal and ex­pand­ing its ter­ri­to­ries in Idlib. The head of the Syr­ian Turk­men Assem­bly, Muhammed Ve­cih Cuma, told Daily Sabah that it is not ac­cept­able to watch and ac­cept the HTS’s gains against the mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion groups.

“HTS’s ex­pan­sion would en­cour­age the As­sad regime’s fur­ther ag­gres­sion,” Cuma ex­pressed.

“We can­not ac­cept the fact that there are 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple will be­come a tar­get,” he fur­ther said, un­der­lin­ing that they keep their faith in the Sochi deal.

“Turkey and Rus­sia should con­tinue their ef­forts for a sus­tain­able po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion. We don’t prospect any suc­cess for any mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion [by the regime forces]. Be­sides, there are mil­lions of civil­ians in­clud­ing Turk­mens liv­ing in Idlib and Homs. Where will they go [in case of a regime at­tack]?” Cuma con­tin­ued. “We pur­sue our belief that Turkey will con­tinue and push its ef­forts to pro­tect civil­ians and pre­vent a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in ac­cor­dance with the Sochi agree­ment.”

On the ex­is­tence of any pos­si­ble back­ers that may be pro­vid­ing fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal sup­port to the HTS, both Özk­izil­cik and Cuma said that there is no cer­tainty on the mat­ter. How­ever, the pair did say that there is sus­pi­cion that coun­tries like the United Arab Emi­rates (UAE), which are against the mod­er­ate op­er­a­tion and aim to chal­lenge Turkey, have been pro­vid­ing sup­port to the ter­ror­ist group.

Sochi deal agreed in Septem­ber 2018 to es­tab­lish a de­mil­i­ta­rized zone in Idlib in or­der to de­crease ten­sion caused by regime at­tacks and pre­vent a new con­flict in the prov­ince.

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