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Turkey's Dangerous Games Causing Idlib Catastrophe

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Message Firas Samuri

The meeting of the heads of Russia, Turkey and Iran dedicated to a Syrian settlement was held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on February 14, 2019. Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Erdogan discussed possible ways forward for the political resolution of the Syrian crisis, joint steps that would help to calm the situation in Syria and seriously advance the peace process by showing respect for international law and the agreements undertaken by the parties concerned.

Speaking of the peaceful settlement in Idlib, the sides have agreed to continue working on the implementation of the Sochi summit. The certain adjustments on transferring Idlib's largest part under Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (former Al-Qaida terrorists or HTS) control would be made. As of yet, it is not clear whether the hostilities against terrorists would open. The detailed answer could be given only after having analyzed the Turkish activity on implementing all the points of the Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in Idlib as well as after having studied the development of the situation since the document had been signed.

Details of the Memorandum

The Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in Idlib was signed in mid-September 2018. The document lists a ten-point plan to avoid an offensive in the northwestern Syrian province. Aside from the demilitarized zone, which would go "15-20 km deep in the de-escalation area", the document grants the Iranian-Russian-Turkish coordination centre a role in implementing the ceasefires. That also said that Russia is responsible for outside security environment. And, Turkey is liable to take the security measures inside the zone.

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Map changes in Idlib since Memorandum has been signed

HTS militants officially rejected the terms of the Sochi agreement. The fulfilling of the deal by Erdogan is even less likely under the current circumstances.

In this regard, the statement of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, regarding the HTS attacks in Idlib looks quite ridiculous. "Radical groups are attacking the Syrian opposition, and we have taken necessary measures to halt these attacks." On the one hand, this statement looks genuine, but on the other hand, the minister exaggerated the measures taken by Ankara, especially if we look at the map.

Cavusoglu rushed to improve the situation but did nothing better than blame Assad for a redeployment of militants across the country to Idlib. It's very amusing to hear that now, when HTS has established control over the whole province. Why was everything all right for Ankara earlier when the terrorists flooded the region?

Has the process of establishing Islamic control over Idlib passed on silent approval of Turkey?

The defeat of Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Ahrah al-Sham concessions, dissolution of Free Idlib Police (the branch of Al-Qaida in Syria) played a crucial role in changing the balance of power.

Jaysh al-Ahrar acknowledged the power of Salvation government controlled by HTS. Its leaders agreed on handing over its territories along the Syrian-Turkish border as well as strongholds and checkpoints to HTS.

Besides, in early January, HTS successfully captured National Liberation Front positions and turned over control of them to the Salvation government. It was done following the peace agreement signed between the sides. After that, all the health facilities in Idlib stopped operating due to the suspension of supplies by the EU and international organizations. So, the situation in the province has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe.

Moreover, HTS reached an agreement on redeployment of 1,700 Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir militants from Al-Gab to Afrin.

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Talks on Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir militants' redeployment

The other illegal armed groups concluded, without any resistance, an agreement with Al-Nusra on territorial transfer to the Salvation government (linked to HTS), and the remnants of the moderate opposition joined the ranks of the terrorists. Thus, the atmosphere in the region became more tense. All the efforts to sort out the moderate opposition have failed.

By the way, the lack of Turkey's and its pawns' counteracting demonstrates the direct involvement of the Turkish special services in strengthening HTS in Idlib. Moreover, that is evidenced by the statement of HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who has declared the support for the Turkish plan against Kurds in the northeastern Syria.

HTS "disciplines" Idlib

According to the representatives of other groups, a large number of former Free Syrian Policemen are unemployed, and now there is no one left to fight against corruption, robbery, assassination and looting (these indicators are slightly higher in Idlib than in other parts of Syria). And now, Idlib would be patrolled by "Islamic Police", consisting of militant groups belonging to HTS instead of "Free Syrian police".

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