Graffiti in Kilis (Seth J. Frantzman)
An interview Mohammed Ruzgar, a Syrian who has been following the conflict since its beginning.
What do you make of the current agreement?
From the beginning I expected that Russia will not sacrifice its relations with Turkey in Idlib.
But Russia tried through declaring or making the [Syrian] regime declare about a possible operation. Russia wanted to have leverage in negotiations with Turkey.
I think that Turkey from the beginning said that any operation in Idlib would damage its national security because of the refugees who would enter Turkey and the burden of those refugees. They don’t want the regime to have good ties with the PYD until now, maybe because the regime will use PYD factor to threaten Turkey. So Turkey was very clear before the agreement, and Turkey increased alliances with groups in Idlib, with groups like Faylaq al-Sham, and it sent more troops and weapons to its observation points.
They don’t want the regime to have good ties with the PYD
Through this period of tension Turkey told the opposition and Free Syrian Army leaders to say that Turkey supports them, to make it clear to Russia and make Moscow hear that Turkey will not keep silent and will not stay back if there is a possibility of an operation.
Very few know that Turkish intelligence told FSA commanders that Ankara is “ready to give Hatay but not Idlib” as a statement that it is a matter of pride and the Turkish government wanted to show it hates the regime and doesn’t want it on its border. This is a matter of national security as well. If the regime positions itself on the border then that will mean that it can blackmail Turkey through the Kurdish fighters and other issues.
How will Turkey proceed in Idlib?
Turkey watched this issue and the September 17, 2018 agreement (see the full text here) is the fruit of this serious stance. I think that Turkey is working to clean Idlib of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and that is the hardest mission. I am not sure, but most think that it has given Turkey the ability to clear this region of radical groups over the next year and maybe HTS will dissolve itself or maybe it will come face to face with the Turkish army.The FSA groups have been fortified also. Something will happen to clear Idlib from these groups, either battles or something else.
How would they get HTS out of the 15-20km demilitarized zone, which Turkey is supposed to do by mid-October?
It is easy to take them out of the buffer zone. For instance it can convince them the way it convinced them to let the observation points be there. But the hardest point is to convince them to dissolve themselves. Or to surrender or to find a way go back to their countries. I think that will take a long time.
Can Turkey remove HTS?
Over the past two years, Turkey has invested well in Syria and it has good ties even with some of the HTS commanders. So Turkey will first use its usual methods to talk to them and try to convince them and over time will raise the pressure and begin to make threats against them. Also the people of Idlib have been protesting to support Turkey as the best solution and option for them. So they have come to accept this: Either Turkey or Iran/Regime/Russia, so leaning on this popular support Turkey will work either through pressure, threats or conflict, such as a proxy conflict to resolve this matter. A proxy conflict could be using its allied groups or even its own soldiers. It will not allow its prestige to be damaged and it doesn’t want to give Russia the pretext for a violent attack on Idlib.
Turkey will work either through pressure, threats or conflict, such as a proxy conflict to resolve the issue of HTS
What about the other groups?
Most of those groups, except of HTS, are affiliated to Turkey in some way or other. For instance, Ahar al-Sham, Faylaq Sham, and other FSA groups. So Turkey can use them to defeat HTS if it doesn’t accept the decision and doesn’t accept to be removed. It is not easy because HTS has at least 25,000 fighters and they are well equipped and they are the strongest faction in Idlib. It will not be easy. But before the agreement some people started to talk in Idlib about some dialogue inside HTS about dissolving itself. In the past, around 3-4 months ago, it was a taboo issue. But now, from a month ago, less radical people began to talk about dissolving the group.This definitely started to be discussed.
Would HTS members join the other groups?
No, it didn’t happen yet and I don’t think that would happen easily. That might be an option for some ordinary fighters, but not commanders. The commanders are ideological and they wouldn’t accept to be a part of the other FSA groups.
What about the M4 road from Aleppo through Idlib to Latakia that the agreement says should open?
Before this agreement there was a road from the regime controlled areas to the region controlled by the opposition. I think it is practical and not impossible [to open the M4]. I think if there is a will from Russia, it is able to enforce its decision on the regime. Both sides need each other. They both need commercial aspects. And there was already a way. And maybe they will do like this: Put Turkish checkpoints on the road. I see it as a practical possibility. Even in the old days when ISIS was there, there were roads for commercial issues.
What about if people in Idlib want a Syrian government passport or to renew one to travel?
If they were refugees in Turkey or in some areas they can come to Turkey to the Syrian consulate and then they can get a passport. But people from Idlib could not do this. It is not organized. But it could be that they ask a relative for assistance.
What about the education system?
They might make the same decisions they did in areas they took from ISIS and PYD [Jarabulus and Afrin]. There are local systems in Idlib, such as a free university controlled by local government and they provide diplomas and other things. A lot of students attend there. If Turkey has more power there then it will do what it did in Aleppo’s north countryside (see for instance the university in Al-Bab).
I don’t think Russia will gamble on its relationship with Turkey
So you think the regime will hold the ceasefire?
I think so because Turkey is a powerful guarantor of the peace and the agreement between Russia and Turkey led by the presidents showing that if Russia does not give the green light to attack then it won’t happen. I don’t think Russia will gamble on its relationship with Turkey.
It could happen after a period if Russia sees that Turkey hasn’t been able to remove HTS. In fact HTS is just a pretext for Russia. Russia doesn’t differentiate between HTS and FSA, but now Turkey has told Moscow that if its pretext is just HTS then Turkey will solve it. Russia will not gamble this relationship with Ankara.
What about Iran?
After the Tehran summit [on September 7] was not successful, Iran didn’t want to stop the possibility of an operation. So Iran is not satisfied with this agreement. But it is a Russian-Turkish agreement. Also Iran’s militias and munitions are still around Idlib. It has around 22 groups along the frontline and in the area. They are ready for any operation. But the war is Russia’s war. In this case Russia will not tolerate any violation for the agreement.