From September 2018 to March 2020, two agreements change Idlib map
Nearly 18 months, from September 2018 to March 2020, the Idlib Governorate and other regions of north-west Syria have experienced several military escalations launched by the Syrian regime forces during which Iranian militia has provided ground support, and Russia air support.
The recent Syrian regime attacks have resulted in two agreements between Ankara and Moscow, which radically changes the control map of the covered areas; the control of the Syrian armed opposition groups has weakened in favor of the Syrian regime forces’ military advance. Moreover, the massacres perpetrated by Russian aircraft have triggered thousands of civilians to flee from the big cities in north-western Syria to the Syrian-Turkish borders, which turned white. White is the color of the camps of the displaced people who fled the bombing.
In September 2018, Russia, the Syrian regime forces, and Iranian militias stood ready to launch a military attack on Idlib Governorate, which is controlled by opposition factions and Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
On the 18th of the same month, an agreement was reached between Russia President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to put an end to this attack.
At that time, the agreement stipulated that the Idlib de-escalation area would be preserved, and Turkish observation posts would be fortified and continue to function. In addition, it stated that a demilitarized zone, 15-20 km deep in the de-escalation area, would be established.
The agreement also provided the withdrawal of all tanks, multi-barrel rocket launchers, artillery, and mortars belonging to conflicting parties from the demilitarized zone by 10 October 2018. The opposition factions abided by this condition, unlike the Syrian regime, according to the facts on the ground.
Moreover, the Turkish Armed Forces and the military police of the Russian Federation Armed Forces carried out coordinated patrols and control efforts using drones, all along the borders of the demilitarized zone.
According to the “Sochi” agreement clauses, Turkey should undertake the expulsion of all groups considered as “radical terrorists” from the demilitarized zone. Moscow took advantage of this article to put pressure on Turkey, since it did not expel the “terrorist groups” by 15 October 2019.
In the previous two months, January and February, this fact was highlighted, in recent statements made by Russian officials during the last campaign launched against Idlib, in order to justify the regime’s attack.
Perhaps one of the most important provisions of the agreement is the restoration of transit traffic through the two international highways “M4” (Aleppo – Latakia) and “M5” (Aleppo – Hama). Besides, the agreement would ensure the free movement of the local population and goods and restore trade and economic links that were supposed to take place by the end of 2018, a condition that was not applied according to the agreement’s schedule. Therefore, most observers expected that Russia would seek to implement this article later, and this is what happened in the recent military campaign.
When the “Sochi” agreement was signed, the opposition factions controlled large areas in Idlib Governorate, the most prominent of which are the major cities located on the international road “M5”, such as the cities of Khan Sheikhoun, Maarat al-Numan, and Saraqib, in the southern countryside of Idlib, in addition to the towns of Mork and Kafr Zita in the northern Hama countryside, in addition to areas in the western and southern countryside of Aleppo along the same road.
Since the signing of the “Sochi” agreement on Idlib, Russia and the Syrian regime have launched five military campaigns. The first campaign began in October 2018, a month after the signing of the agreement, while the last campaign started in January. It ended with a deal signed in Moscow between Erdogan and Putin on 5 March.
Comparing the map resulting from the agreement with the map produced after the “Sochi” agreement, it is clear that the Syrian opposition has lost large areas of the countryside of Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib.
The armed opposition factions in Idlib are controlling limited areas close to the Turkish border in addition to the cities located on the international route “M4”. Based on previous statements delivered by Russian officials, that stressed the need to restore order to the entire Syrian geography, amid expectations that Russia will extend its campaign in the region and restore this road from the opposition party.
The agreement concluded in March after five-hour talks in the presence of senior officials from Russia and Turkey, stipulated a cease-fire in Idlib on the contact line that was created according to the “de-escalation” areas, as well as the establishment of safe passage of six kilometers in the north and south of the “M4” road in Syria.
In addition, it was stipulated to provide comprehensive protection of all Syrians, return the displaced people, and conduct Turkish and Russian patrols, which will start on the 15 March, along the Aleppo-Latakia (M4) road between the two regions of Tarnbah, west of Saraqib, and Ain al-Hoor in the western countryside of Idlib.
The agreement indicated that the Syrian regime forces would not withdraw from the borders set in the previous “Sochi” deal to keep the current military situation.
Erdogan has repeatedly stated that Turkey wants the Syrian regime forces to retreat behind the Turkish observation posts set by the “Sochi” agreement signed in September 2018.
Last February, the Turkish President gave the regime forces a deadline to withdraw from the areas they have taken control of in the recent campaign in the rural areas of Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama.
According to the current agreement, among the essential areas that the Syrian regime recaptured and did not withdraw are Khan Sheikhoun, Maarat al-Numan, and Saraqib in the Idlib countryside, in addition to the northern Hama countryside and the western countryside of Aleppo.
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