WALKING A FRAGILE PATH: ASSESSING THE IDLIB DE-MILITARIZATION DEAL
Dr. Can Kasapoğlu, Defense Analyst, EDAM
Emre Kürşat Kaya, Researcher, EDAM
- Sochi Agreement is not an Open-Ended Process: The Idlib roadmap set by Turkey and Russia is a highly pressing one in terms of the agreed timeline. While the withdrawal of all heavy weapons (tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems, artillery and mortars) and armed groups is scheduled for mid-October 2018, transit traffic on the M4 and M5 highways is expected to be re-opened by the end of 2018. In the meantime, the de-militarization area will be closely monitored by the Turkish Armed Forces and the Russian military police. The goals and the deadlines of the plan are very clear, and leave little room for further diplomatic maneuvering.
- Managing Intra-Rebel Dynamics Remain Key for Success: At the time of writing, while some radical groups, such as Hurras al-Din that has undeniable ties with al-Qaeda, openly rejected the Turkish – Russian deal, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Turkestan Islamic Party, who have not declared a clear position, remain the wildcards of the de-militarization process. Intra-group splits, divisions, factionalism, and intra-rebel fighting have always been common practices throughout the civil war. Therefore, the most risk-aversive way-out would be encouraging relatively ‘acceptable’ factions within these groups to disband, and integrate into the recognized opposition umbrella by renouncing their allegiances to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
- The Syrian Arab Army’s Military Buildup is Continuing: Following the de-militarization deal brokered by Turkey and Russia, the Syrian Arab Army’s robust military buildup around Idlib remains intact. As explained in detail in the previous EDAM report, the Syrian regime deployed its praetorian, battle-hardened formations in the area of operations. The underlying military rationale for keeping the heavy deployment could stem from the need of monitoring the M4 and M5 highway openings in the coming months, as well as putting pressure on the dissident armed groups that refuse to withdraw from the de-militarization zone. At present, there is no major front in Syria that necessitate Assad’s military planners to re-deploy most of these combat-capable units in any other corner of the country. Thus, current indicators suggest that the Syrian Arab Army would keep its deployments, at least some of them, until the de-militarization deal is fully realized.
- Emergence of a Risky Line of Contact Could Lead to Provocations: As the regime’s Idlib campaign unfolded with the support of the Russian airpower, Ankara has reinforced its observation outposts with heavy armor and artillery. Open-source pieces of evidence suggest that while Turkey’s 12 de-escalation observation posts were initially manned by company-level contingents, at the time of writing, the Turkish Armed Forces boosted its posture to ensure the security of its forward-deployments. At this point, the Syrian regime’s military buildup close to the Turkish formations could produce problematic results, especially if Russia cannot fully leash the regime forces some of which are under heavy Iranian influence. These units are established in a politico-sectarian fashion, mostly commanded by hardliner generals, and accompanied by irregular militia, all of which could lead to unforeseen provocations.
- Turkey Needs to Use the Syrian Airspace in Any Scenario: The de-militarization roadmap can follow one clear trajectory in two phases: First, by using an efficient intelligence toolbox, the entire armed groups of Idlib will have to be convinced to withdraw from the decided 15-20km territory and the area should be thoroughly monitored. Second, the dissenting groups will have to be eliminated by using military means. For the monitoring process, Turkey’s unmanned aerial capabilities would be indispensable. And in case dissident factions are determined to resist de-militarization efforts, the Turkish military’s close-air support and joint air-ground operations would be crucial to support a ground campaign. For accomplishing all these tasks, Turkey will have to use the Syrian airspace in any scenario. Russia’s control over the Syrian air defenses and de-confliction in the skies will be critical. Besides, low-altitude air defense capabilities of the dissident groups should be carefully eliminated, especially in case the Turkish military opts for employing rotary-wing platforms of the army aviation.