Idlib Province: the peaceful ways of Moscow and Tehran« Back
The number of Islamist radicals (jihadists) in the province of Idlib is currently estimated at 60,000. Today, it is the largest cluster of radicals from Daesh * and Al-Qaeda * in Syria. Moreover, of these, about 15,000 militants came to Syria from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia and China. In order to stabilize the situation in Syria and launch a national reconciliation process there, it is necessary to withdraw the radical Islamists from there. However, a large-scale military operation in the province of Idlib could lead to the emergence of another 800,000 refugees in the direction of Turkey, in addition to the 3 million already existing. It is obvious that a significant part of them will then try to get to Europe, which will significantly worsen the security situation there.
Until recently, Russia was actively preparing for a large-scale military operation in the province of Idlib and the adjacent provinces of Lattakia, Hama and Aleppo. To this end, relevant foreign policy, military and informational training was conducted. In particular, the Air and Space Forces Aviation of Russia continued to strike at targets in this province. So, on September 8, the aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian Air Force carried out up to 100 sorties against militant targets in the Idlib and Hama provinces.
At the same time, Russia tried to keep the United States, France and Great Britain from using military force against the Syrian Arab army under the pretext of using chemical weapons in the province of Idlib. Numerous exposures by the Russian Defense Ministry of activities in Syria of the White Helmets nongovernmental organization and the cited facts of preparation in the province of chlorine provocations played a role in the fact that the US and its allies were forced to suspend preparations for launching missile strikes on Syrian military targets.
In addition, in the period from September 1 to 8, large military exercises were held near the Syrian coast, in which 26 ships and vessels of the Navy of Russia took part, including two submarines, as well as 34 aircraft. On September 3, within the framework of the said exercises, two anti-submarine Tu-142 aircraft arrived at the Khmeimim airbase. The presence in the area of submarines and anti-submarine aircraft was also a factor holding back the aggressive actions of the United States and its allies in Syria.
On September 7, a tripartite summit of Russia, Iran and Turkey was held in Tehran on resolving the situation in Syria. At the same time, the parties agreed to consolidate efforts to protect civilians and improve the humanitarian situation in Syria. They also reaffirmed the need to ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) and the settlement of the armed conflict based on “political methods” by forming a Constitutional Commission and coordinating activities with relevant international organizations (primarily within the UN). All this is recorded in the final declaration of the tripartite summit.
The summit of heads of state - guarantors of the Astana process to assist the Syrian settlement in Tehran showed that Iran and Russia are not going to cancel their plans to support the Syrian government in returning Idlib, although they try not to annoy Turkey and take into account its security concerns. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin clearly stated their positions, rejecting the proposal of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to include in the final statement of the summit the wording “ceasefire”.
During the summit, disagreements arose regarding the “truce clause” (which the Turkish side insisted on), which was eventually changed to the wording “political settlement” (which President Vladimir Putin insisted on in mild form). The main outcome of the tripartite talks was the temporary refusal of Moscow and Tehran to conduct a large-scale military operation in the province of Idlib. At the same time, Ankara was able to extend the deadline for the fulfillment of its obligations to disperse the opposition in the province of Idlib. Moscow went for it with the goal of preserving the Astana format of negotiations and unwillingness to further aggravate relations with the United States and the West as a whole, as well as with the United Nations. Tehran is also not interested in aggravating relations with Europe - at least until November 4, 2018, when Brussels should take real steps to protect its companies from secondary US anti-Iran sanctions as part of the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.
After the summit in Tehran, Russia continued to search for a possible compromise on the development of the situation in the province of Idlib, and not only with Turkey (with Iran there are no serious differences on this issue), but also with France and Germany. This was confirmed by the meeting on the Syrian issue of the Assistant to the President of the Russian Federation Yury Ushakov on September 14 in Istanbul, Ibrahim Kalyn, the official representative of the President of Turkey, Philippe Etienne, Adviser to the President of France, and Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Jan Hecker. During this meeting, the assistants to the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Germany and France expressed confidence in the need for a political solution to the problems in the province of Idlib.
However, a breakthrough in this direction occurred only on September 17, when Russian president Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Erdogan met in Sochi. Then a joint memorandum on stabilization in the province of Idlib was signed, according to which, by October 10, 2018, heavy weapons and radical militants, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (former Dzhebhat an- Nusra*). And by October 15, along the line of contact of the armed opposition with the Syrian Arab army, a demilitarized zone is created with a depth of 15–20 kilometers with the withdrawal of Islamic radicals from there. There will be placed mobile patrol units of the units of the Armed Forces (AF) of Turkey and the Russian military police. This document is most likely already agreed with Damascus and, possibly, with Tehran.
If this can be implemented in practice, then the problem of Idlib will be resolved peacefully to a large extent. Otherwise, local military operations will be conducted in this province and in the surrounding areas to oust the radical Islamists from there.
* Banned in the Russian Federation.