September 21, 2020

Idlib: a story of clashes and ceasefires in Syria’s strategic province

By Guido Lanfranchi.

On March 5th, 2020, the leaders of Turkey and Russia – involved on different sides in the conflict in Syria’s Idlib province – agreed once more to halt the fight in the region. Ten days later, the ceasefire seems to hold, and the two country’s militaries are moving on with the implementation of the agreement.

March 15th, 2020. The first joint Turkish-Russian patrol along the strategic M4 highway is underway today – as announced two days ago by Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar. The coordinated operation is taking place as part of the agreement reached on March 5th by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who decided to halt combat operations in the war-torn Idlib province of north-western Syria. 

The Idlib province is of major strategical importance in Syria, as it lies at the intersection between two of the country’s major communication arteries, the M4 and the M5 highways. The M5 cuts the most populated areas of Syria from south to north, connecting the capital Damascus with major cities such as Homs and Aleppo. The M4 cuts instead the country from west to east, connecting the Mediterranean port of Latakia with Syria’s north-east. The two highways intersect in the town of Saraqib, in Idlib province, which over the past weeks has been the focus of major clashes.

The fighting in Idlib has pitted the Syrian Arab Army, backed by Russia, against Turkish forces and their allied rebel groups in the region.

Clashes between these forces in Idlib are nothing new. Fierce fighting had already erupted in late 2018 between the Russian-backed Syrian Army and Turkish-backed groups in the area. An agreement between the Turkish and Russian leaders in September had temporarily stopped the clashes, providing for a halt to the Syrian offensive in return for the withdrawal of radical, al-Qaeda-linked groups from the region. The deal’s terms, however, were never fully implemented, and fighting erupted again in the spring of 2019.

Despite attempts to revive the Turkish-Russian agreement during the summer, clashes continued – eventually intensifying in late 2019, when Syrian forces, with the help of Russian airpower, launched an offensive to recapture territories in Idlib. This offensive prompted direct clashes between the Syrian army and Turkish forces, who had been deployed to several observation posts inside Idlib province under the September 2018 agreement. This last wave of clashes – which was particularly fierce – had devastating effects on Idlib province’s population. Over three months, nearly a million people were reportedly displaced – their conditions being all the more difficult owing to the combination of heavy clashes and harsh climate conditions.

As the fighting escalated in late February, the international community turned its attention to Idlib, and pressure on all sides mounted to put a halt to the clashes. On March 5th, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin – after a six hours meeting – declared that another agreement had been reached. The new Idlib deal provided for an immediate ceasefire, as well as the establishment of a secure corridor around the M4 highway, to be managed jointly by Turkish and Russian forces. Under the deal, the Syrian government maintained its control over the areas recaptured during the latest offensive, thus finally securing control over the M5 highway. 

In the wake of the March 5th agreement, the international community’s attention has been rapidly shifting away from Idlib, with all eyes turning to the propagation of the COVID-19 across the globe. Yet, the situation in Idlib continues to evolve. In the days after the March 5th agreement, the two sides did not report major violations of the ceasefire. At the time of writing this article, on March 15th, the first joint Turkish-Russian patrol is currently ongoing. The operation is set to take place with a reduced route – due to the risk of provocation by armed groups, the Russian Ministry of Defense declared. Yet, increased coordination seems to be again underway – hopefully to the benefit of the civilian population in Idlib, who remains the real victim of this conflict.


About the author:

Guido Lanfranchi is a student and young professional in the field of international affairs. He has pursued his studies both at Leiden University and Sciences Po Paris, where he is currently enrolled. In parallel, he has been gaining professional experience through internships (first at the Council of the European Union, and currently at Clingendael Institute), as well as by working as reporter and associate editor for Diplomat Magazine The Netherlands. His research and work focus on the Middle East and Africa, and especially on conflict situations in these regions.

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