In sight of Sochi

Though the pro-regime axis has its own reasons for wanting to avoid an Idlib offensive, there is ultimately no reason to think last week's cessation of hostilities has any more chance of holding than its predecessors, argues James Snell.

After weeks of threat and portent, the people of Idlib have been granted a stay of execution. The regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian backers will not, for now, rampage through the northern province and bomb it to rubble. Their incipient offensive has been delayed, though it has not been cancelled.

The official reason for this non-commencement of hostilities was an arrangement signed between Russia and Turkey, mere days after talks including the above and Iran in Sochi appeared to conclude without agreement.

Apparent ‘peace talks' of this kind present their own dangers, with mass murder in Syria either staved off or made more likely by a conference solely comprising foreign authoritarians.

In any case, it is worth examining the substance of the agreement, and whether it could present any justifiable cause for optimism.

Turkey and Russia are to patrol a newly-created buffer zone at the border of the province. This stipulation is, in part, intended to prevent any unsanctioned outbreaks of violence. But the language of the agreement contains another focus: the fighting of terrorism in Idlib province.

A slight digression may prove illustrative.

The word “terrorism” has served the regime and its allies well in the past. Russia’s direct intervention in the Syrian war in 2015 was always couched in terms of counter-terrorist activity, yet Russian warplanes and Russian troops ended up fighting Syria’s mainstream opposition in any case. The regime, likewise, has persistently branded all domestic enemies “terrorists.”

Past ceasefires have been rendered absurd by the same linguistic slight of hand. When such an agreement has contained a clause allowing all parties to continue to fight terrorist groups, the slaughter has continued largely unrestrained, and unchanged. The example of Eastern Ghouta, which was afforded an ineffectual ceasefire before being overrun, attests to this pattern.

In Idlib, performative anti-terrorism is afforded a veneer of factual support. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor organization of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian operation, is in evidence—and in force—in the province.

HTS features centrally in the Russian-Turkish agreement. In a memorable use of the passive, The Guardian reports that fighters belonging to HTS “will be expected to evacuate” the buffer zone and, latterly, the province. How exactly a terrorist group with little respect for international agreement is expected to be sold on this plan remains to be seen—the group said Monday it would make its official position known “soon,” with senior members having already individually denounced the pact.

If HTS insists on remaining in place, the postponed violence of a regime and Russian offensive remains present, ready to be realized. This point is made more real by Faysal Itani, who suggests that hostilities may be resumed on this pretext if HTS is not dissipated by as early as October 15. In this, the Idlib agreement resembles other ceasefires in Daraa and Ghouta, which were invariably disregarded or collapsed under the weight of continued campaigning.

There is reason to consider this agreement another example of prevarication dressed up as peace.

Nonetheless, an immediate offensive may have been postponed for reasons of practical necessity. The regime has suffered from an ongoing manpower shortage for years. Its armed forces are operating under capacity, reliant on regime-mustered mobs and militias of foreign import and organization. Its men are weary and its lines are overstretched. Roy Gutman notes that the regime is likely to be capable of mustering fewer than 30,000 troops for an offensive against a province which contains tens of thousands of rebels, many of them deported from other battlefronts as part of deals struck in surrender, many in receipt of extensive Turkish support—all alongside the battle-hardened jihadists who feature so heavily in regime propaganda.

It may be no wonder that the heralded offensive did not occur. This is bolstered by Itani’s point that the agreement is likely built on the back of “Russian-Turkish convergence” on the basis of an “alignment of interests.” Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not only found his voice by forecasting a “bloodbath” in Idlib, but also found his own global niche in condemnation. To have averted the inevitable massacre serves Erdogan’s interests, militarily as well as politically.

The Assad regime, Russia’s client, has its own reasons to accept temporarily halting its campaign to dominate “every inch” of the country—a phrase which not only sunk previous ceasefires, but proved them to be part of a conscious strategy of conquest. This is evidenced by reports that the Russian and Turkish bargain is a bloodless victory for the regime, including facilitating the reopening of the M4 and M5 motorways, which connect Latakia and Saraqib, and Syria’s south and the Turkish border. These roadways, closed for four years, are central to the regime’s plans for economic redevelopment coupled with the projection of its political power.

All this talk of mutual interest preventing war can only go so far. The Russian and Turkish co-operation did not prevent the regime’s aggression in contravention of ceasefires past; and the Russian state has proven its willingness to bolster the regime’s capacity for aggression.

Carving up Syria and creating buffer zones has not ended violence in the past, merely postponed it. There is no reason to think this agreement has any more chance of holding than its predecessors. The joint patrolling of Turkey and Russia is no guarantee of peace. Even areas under the direct protection of the United States have come under protracted and serious attack by regime forces and allied militias. The regime’s fundamental aggression, and fundamental lack of peaceable intentions, is not undermined by its weakness or surrounding powers adopting a temporary posture of passivity.

One notes an undercurrent to the cautious optimism some human rights and humanitarian organizations have expressed since the deal was announced: relief. That relief is authentic, but means little good for the country’s future.

In a war which has gone on as long as Syria's has, and which has reached such a stage of degradation, any outcome which does not, in the immediate term, include a massacre is met with nervous positivity. This is understandable, but it is also a trap, one which makes a crisis postponed look like a problem solved.