Russia-Turkey truce in Syria: Just 'time for fighters to rest'?

The presidents of Russia and Turkey reached an agreement which may end fighting in northern Syria, now in its ninth-year of conflict. But critics are skeptical the truce will last.

Pavel Golovkin, Pool/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands after their truce talks in Moscow on March 5, 2020. The leaders say the truce could end fighting in northwestern Syria.

Idlib's skies were completely free of Russian and Syrian government warplanes for the first time in weeks Friday, and residents reported a relative but tense calm as a cease-fire deal brokered by Turkey and Russia took hold in Syria's northwestern province.

The truce halted a terrifying campaign of bombing from above that killed hundreds and sent a million people fleeing toward the Turkish border during the Russian-backed assault by Syrian government forces on the country's last rebel stronghold.

The agreement, announced Thursday after a six-hour meeting between the Turkish and Russian presidents in Moscow, essentially froze the conflict lines. The deal does not force Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces to roll back military gains made in the past three months, which had been a key Turkish demand.

That effectively rules out the possibility of hundreds of thousands of displaced people returning to their homes.

The deal also lacked specifics or a known mechanism to enforce the truce. It is the latest of many cease-fire agreements for Idlib over the past few years. All have ended up unraveling after few months, triggering new government offensives that captured more territory from the opposition. Government forces now control much of Syria after evicting rebels from other parts of country.

"This is nothing more than a time for fighters to rest," Salwa Abdul-Rahman, a citizen journalist, told The Associated Press by phone from Idlib's provincial capital, which bears the same name.

"Warplanes that used to terrorize children at night and commit massacres are not flying overhead now," she said.

Although warplanes no longer launched sorties, the activists said there was minor shelling in some areas after the truce went into effect at midnight Thursday.

Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan each back rival sides in the Syrian conflict and have become the main power brokers in the war-torn country.

The situation in Idlib worsened in recent weeks after Turkey sent thousands of troops there. Clashes with Syrian government forces have killed 60 Turkish soldiers and scores of Syrian troops since the beginning of February.

Ms. Abdul-Rahman said Idlib residents, mostly those who were displaced over the past three months, "are angry because they were hoping to return to their homes" that are now under government control. Ms. Abdul-Rahman added that people who "are now living in tents discovered they cannot return."

"This matter concerns us, Syrians, but it seems we don't have a say in this. They are playing chess with us," she said about the Russia-Turkey agreement.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said Syrian and Russian warplanes were not in the air over Idlib on Friday. Still, it reported minor violations in the first three hours of the truce.

Idlib-based opposition activist Taher al-Omar reported clashes shortly after midnight on the southern edge of Idlib.

The Observatory later reported a clash between Syrian troops and jihadi fighters in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in Idlib. The Observatory said 15 combatants were killed, six from the government side and nine from the Turkistan Islamic Party, which is largely made up of Chinese jihadis.

The Russia-Turkey agreement appears to achieve Moscow's key goal of allowing the Syrian government to keep control of the south-north highway known as the M5. Syrian forces captured the highway's last segments in the latest offensive.

The deal also would set up a security corridor along the M4, a key east-west highway in Idlib. According to the cease-fire deal published in Syrian pro-government media, Russian and Turkish troops are supposed to begin joint patrols on the M4 on March 15.

The reopening of the M4, which has been closed by insurgents since 2012, will be a test for the new Russia-Turkey deal.

Under a Russia-Turkey agreement reached in the summer of 2018, the two highways were supposed to be opened before the end of that year. But rejection of the deal by Al Qaeda-linked militants in Idlib kept the two vital roads closed.

Mr. Erdogan said there would be "no question of change" regarding Turkey's 12 observation posts inside Idlib. The posts are manned by Turkish troops and are in place as part of a 2018 agreement with Russia. Some of these posts now fall within government-controlled territory. Mr. Erdogan was quoted by state-run Anadolu Agency on the flight back from Moscow on Friday.

The European Union's top diplomats gathered Friday in Croatia for an emergency meeting to discuss what to do about Syria. Upon arrival, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the cease-fire as "good news."

"Let's see how it works, that is the precondition in order to increase humanitarian help for the people in Idlib," Mr. Borrell said.

Asked if the EU should reach out to Mr. Putin, he said, "We need to improve relations with Turkey and with Russia, we have many many issues we have to improve."

He said the foreign ministers will discuss more funds for Turkey but wouldn't go into details or say how many countries support the idea and how many oppose.

Idlib is home to thousands of Al Qaeda-linked militants, many of whom reject a political solution for Syria's nine-year conflict, which has left more than 400,000 people dead. The province is also home to about 3 million people, many of them displaced from other parts of Syria.

Several cease-fire deals have collapsed in the past and President Assad has vowed to regain control of all parts of the country that are outside his government's control.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed reporting.

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