In the backdrop of negotiations over drafting Syria’s new constitution and a transition in UN representation on Syria, the conflict in Idlib continues to simmer. Unrest in Idlib and dissatisfaction there with the internationally-recognized opposition, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), leaves residents of Syria’s northwest excluded from constitutional committee. This is significant because the constitutional convention is increasingly viewed as a precondition for advancing the larger peace process. The constitutional committee is no place to hammer out granular differences between warring factions in Idlib, but the course of events there hold significant implications for the future of the broader peace process.
Turkey is exerting pressure on the groups it has cultivated among Idlib-based rebels, but overtures from Ankara are proving insufficient to dissuade many fighters in Idlib from a violent confrontation with Assad regime forces. Syrian government troops are equally keen to upend the ceasefire deal and effect the same scorched earth policy in Idlib that allowed them to capture Eastern Ghouta and rebel enclaves in the southwest. Failing to enforce the de-militarization deal agreed in September will impede progress in the internationally brokered peace process.
Taking full advantage of Staffan de Mistura’s lame duck period as UN Special Envoy, the Syrian government aims to push mediating voices out of the constitutional committee and disenfranchise them from the larger settlement process while capitalizing on the military momentum it achieved during its summer offensives in the country’s southwest. Allowing the demilitarized zone (DMZ) deal to break down in Idlib would ultimately allow Bashar al-Assad to secure himself a more favorable position and continue to establish facts on the ground that obviate lengthy international efforts at securing a political settlement to the conflict.
“De-militarized Zone?” More like “Re-militarized Zone”
Syrian government forces retook much of the rebel-held territory in Syria’s southwest through a series of operations in the summer of 2018. In early September, the Syrian Army turned its attention to Idlib, prompting concern over humanitarian fallout from the UN and Turkey. Turkish troops are maintaining the de-escalation zone around Idlib, per the Russian-led, UN-endorsed Astana agreement to reduce violence and boost humanitarian access in regions outside government control. Accordingly, Ankara took the lead on calls for restraint in Idlib, hoping to curb an influx of refugees that Turkey fears it cannot accommodate. Eleventh hour negotiations secured Russian support for a de-militarized zone in Idlib province and granted Turkish diplomats one month to secure rebel compliance. Armed groups had until October 15th to accept or reject the deal’s terms.
Turkey reinforced its troops in Idlib on September 13th, with Turkish intelligence (MİT) officers leading the implementation of the agreement to create a DMZ around Idlib. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a powerful alliance of rebel groups that includes former al-Qaeda elements, delayed its statement until October 14th. HTS tacitly accepted the terms of the ceasefire deal, but declined to capitulate outright and emphasized its intention to continue its struggle against the Assad regime. The National Liberation Front (NLF), a rival coalition supported by Turkey, tentatively accepted the Turkish de-militarization deal and ostensibly began to comply shortly after. Relations between these two leading coalitions remain tense – the NLF expelled HTS fighters from a town in Aleppo Province on September 27th. That tension points to the danger inherent to assumptions of opposition homogeneity. Two other rebel groups in Idlib, Huras al-Din and Jaysh al-Izza, rejected the Turkish-Russian agreement. The hardline Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) showed no signs of quitting its entrenched position by the eve of the deadline.
The October 15th cutoff for compliance with demilitarization deal has joined the long list of missed deadlines in Syria negotiations. Provocations abound on both sides, evidencing the difficulty of enforcing the deal and the incentives all sides perceive in abrogating the agreement. Government and rebel forces traded mortar fire within the proposed DMZ, signaling a failure to remove all heavy weaponry from the area. Violence intensified on October 25th when regime and rebel shelling killed seven civilians. HTS fighters killed four government soldiers in the Idlib countryside on November 1st and toured the Latakia countryside on October 31st, an area outside their typical zone of operation. On November 16th, Huras al-Din fighters attacked and killed 22 soldiers in neighboring Hama Province. The Syrian government belied its bellicose rhetoric when Foreign Minister Mouallem indicated that Damascus would grant rebel forces more time to comply with the deal, but has abandoned conciliatory as truce violations have escalated. This breakdown in the implementation of the DMZ deal speaks to the difficulty Turkey and Russia are experiencing in their attempts to dictate policy to armed groups in Idlib and to the Syrian regime.
Charting a path forward
Meeting in Istanbul in late October, European leaders emphasized the need to both establish an enduring ceasefire in Syria and also to convene a constitutional committee as soon as possible. Such proposals run the risk of conflating the constitutional drafting process with efforts to solve local grievances like the Idlib standoff, but the statement does accurately recognize the importance of pursuing both objectives in tandem. The constitutional drafting project arose from the UN-sponsored peace effort, but recent tendencies to privilege the constitutional drafting effort over negotiations managing local conflicts assume that Bashar al-Assad’s victory is a foregone conclusion. In doing so, they confer massive import on the outcome of the constitutional project as the best chance at restraining Assad if he remains in power. Treating constitutional matters first and enforcing ceasefires second inadvertently gives Damascus cover as it moves to push its own agenda.
Neglecting intra-opposition grievances is an equally surefire path to robbing the constitutional committee of its credibility. The most stern objections currently emerge from rebel territory in Idlib. Locals are so disenchanted with the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) as to call for its dissolution. Dissatisfied constituents in former rebel territory might be cowed by short-term government advances on their territory, but if those living under rebel rule find themselves excluded wholesale from the constitutional drafting effort, the international community severely harms efforts to find inclusive solutions to the Syrian civil war. Ensuring proper representation across the fragmented opposition is no small task, but at least making credible attempts to do so is necessary for securing a document that will last. In the absence of a unified opposition representative, careful management of the Idlib DMZ deal is even more essential.
Geir Pedersen will confront this precise dilemma when he takes over for Staffan de Mistura as UN Syria Envoy in December. Damascus, in its attempts to delay the peace process and blame de Mistura for its shortcomings, will likely resist Pedersen’s efforts. That spoiler strategy aims to give Assad the space he needs to retake Idlib by force. If he succeeds, he will find himself in a still stronger position to set the terms of peace negotiations in international fora. To counteract that strategy, Pedersen must not lose sight of the importance of the Idlib DMZ deal. Pressuring Turkey and Russia to expend more diplomatic resources on enforcing the DMZ deal is a necessary step to continuing the broader peace process. Holding all sides to their commitments in Idlib is essential for maintaining credible progress in both the internationally managed peace process and the more narrow issue of the constitutional convention.