Can the Idlib Truce Hold?

With Turkey preoccupied and the Nusra Front split, a military solution is looking likelier

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s ‘disappearance’ has indirectly affected the Idlib agreement between Russia and Turkey.

Monday was the date for the more important part of that agreement — requiring the withdrawal of the Tahrir ash-Sham Organization (former Nusra Front) from the demilitarized zone – to be implemented. But it passed without any implementation on the ground.

The Turkish government and its security agencies are up to their ears pursuing investigations and negotiations related to the Khashoggi affair, which has become the focus of regional and international interest. The Nusra Front appears to be well aware of this, and views it as an opportunity to avoid withdrawing and handing over its heavy weapons.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has insisted that there is no problem regarding the withdrawal of heavy weapons, and that implementation of the agreement is proceeding as planned. But a Nusra spokesman has reaffirmed his organisation’s refusal to lay down its arms and pull out of the areas specified in the agreement.

The Syrian authorities are monitoring the situation closely, but leaving the matter to the Russians. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu’allem reiterated after talks with his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Monday that his country is in no hurry:  it supported this agreement so as to avoid bloodshed, but Syrian forces are deployed in the Idlib area and are ready to act militarily to recapture the city unless all parties honour the agreement.

The agreement’s Turkish and Russian sponsors are likely to agree on an extension, not only because of the worsening crisis over the Saudi journalist’s disappearance, but also because of a reported rift within the Nusra Front over the withdrawal from the demilitarized zones. One faction, led by the group’s commander Abu-Mohammad al-Jawlani, whose members are mostly Syrians, does not object to implementing the agreement and joining the Tahrir ash-Sham Front that includes Turkish-sponsored factions. The other, which consists largely of foreign fighters and is led by an Egyptian, opposes laying down its arms or withdrawing from the specified areas. It sees that as a prelude to its subsequent liquidation.

The Khashoggi affair, which has turned into a heavy burden on Turkey’s security and political leadership, could have a negative effect on the Idlib agreement. It could not only postpone its implementation but lead to its eventual abandonment. That would serve the authorities in Damascus, who have always believed that a military solution is ultimately necessary to restore the city to Syrian sovereignty.