Prospects of Solving the Idlib Problem

The number of radical Islamists (jihadists) in the province of Idlib is estimated at 60,000. It is the largest concentration of ISIS [1] and Al-Qaeda members in Syria. About 15,000 of them came to the area from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia and China. To stabilize the situation and start a nation-wide reconciliation process, it is necessary to withdraw radical Islamists from the region. However, a large-scale military operation in Idlib could cause an influx of another 800,000 refugees to Turkey, in addition to the already existing 3,000,000 people. A significant part of them will try to reach Europe, which will seriously worsen the security situation there.

Until recently, Russia has been actively preparing for a large-scale military operation in the province of Idlib, as well as in Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, conducting an appropriate foreign policy together with military preparations. In particular, the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) continued striking targets in the region. On September 8, Russian and Syrian air forces carried out up to 100 sorties to hit the militants in the provinces of Idlib and Hama.

Moreover, Russia tried to keep the US, France and Britain from using military force against the Syrian Army under the pretext that it uses chemical weapons in Idlib. The Ministry of Defense several times exposed the non-governmental White Helmets organization in Syria, and the listed facts of the provocations with use of chlorine in the province, and forced the US and its allies to suspend preparations for missile strikes against Syrian military targets.

From September 1 to September 8, large military exercises were held near the Syrian coasts, involving 26 vessels of the Russian Navy, two submarines, and 34 aircraft. On September 3, during these exercises, two anti-submarine aircraft Tu-142 arrived at Khmeimim Air Base. The presence of submarines and anti-submarine aircraft in the area is also a factor to hamper aggressive actions by the US and its allies in Syria.

On September 7, Tehran hosted a trilateral summit of Russia, Iran and Turkey, dedicated to the Syrian settlement. The parties agreed to continue efforts to protect civilians and improve the humanitarian situation in the region. They also confirmed that the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) has to keep its territorial integrity and sovereignty; the armed conflict has to be solved by “political methods” through the creation of the Constitutional Commission coordinated with international organizations (primarily with the UN). All this was fixed in the final declaration of the tripartite summit.

At the summit, disagreements arose over the “reconciliation” point the Turkish side insisted on, which was ultimately changed to the“political settlement”, wording according to Vladimir Putin’s proposal. The main result of the tripartite talks was a temporary refusal by Moscow and Tehran to conduct a large-scale military operation in the province of Idlib. Ankara extended the deadline to fulfill its obligations to disengage the opposition in the area. Moscow agreed with aim to preserve the Astana talks format and not to aggravate relations with the US and the West, the UN in particular. Tehran is not interested in exacerbating relations with Europe, at least until November 4, 2018, when Brussels should take real steps to protect its companies from the secondary US anti-Iranian sanctions in the framework of the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA).

After the Tehran summit, Russia continued to search for a compromise on Idlib, not only with Turkey (since it has not any differences with Iran on the issue), but also with France and Germany. This was confirmed by the meeting on September 14 in Istanbul of the Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov, the official representative of the Turkish President Ibrahim Kalin, the French presidential adviser Philippe Etienne and the foreign policy adviser of the German Chancellor Jan Hecker. During the meeting, the assistants to the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Germany and France expressed the confidence that the Idlib problem needs a political solution.

However, a breakthrough in this direction occurred only on September 17, when the Presidents of Russia and Turkey Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan met in Sochi. A joint memorandum to stabilize the situation in the province of Idlib was signed, according to which by October 10, 2018, heavy weapons and radical militants, including Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as Al-Nusra[1]) should be withdrawn from the region. Moreover, by October 15, a demilitarized zone along the fronline of the armed opposition with the Syrian Arab Army should be created with a depth of 15-20 km. The mobile patrol groups of Turkish forces and Russian military police will be deployed. This document, most likely, has been agreed with Damascus and, possibly, with Tehran. If this could be realized in practice, then the Idlib problem will be solved peacefully. Otherwise, local military operations in this province and in the nearby territories to drive away radical Islamists from there will begin.

[1] Prohibited in Russia.

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