In a move that is hoped to curtail the increased violence in the Syrian province of Idlib Turkey and Russia have announced a ceasefire agreement for Idlib, after a six-hour meeting in Moscow.
Idlib is the last rebel stronghold in Syria and has been the hub of increased violence and bloodshed since December when a Russia-backed Syrian military offensive began to regain control over the region. The fighting had escalated from a proxy war to one where regional powers are closer than ever to engaging one another.
“At 00.01 tonight, as in, from midnight, the ceasefire will be put in place,” Erdogan said as he emerged from the meeting on Thursday in Moscow. The two countries are supporting opposite sides of the conflict with the Russians supporting the government of Bashar Assad while the Turks support the rebels, which are holding the last stronghold in Syria, not under Assad’s control. Both Syria and Russia have accused the Turks of “supporting terrorists” in the country.
“Erdogan is unable to tell the Turks why he is sending his army to fight in Syria and why his soldiers are being killed there because the issue has nothing to do with Turkish interests but with his Muslim Brotherhood ideology,” Assad said to the state-owned Russia 24 channel.
The pact comes right on the heels of further bloodshed as Syria, earlier on Thursday, attacked Turkish positions resulting in the death of two Turkish soldiers and the wounding of three others. Turkish forces responded with a drone attack that killed 21 Syrian troops while destroying two artillery pieces, and multiple rocket launchers. There have been 60 Turkish soldiers killed in the fighting since the offensive began.
President Putin said that he hoped the deal will serve as a “good basis for ending the fighting in the Idlib de-escalation zone, put an end to [the] suffering of [the] civilian population and contain a growing humanitarian crisis.”
“The world’s eyes are on us,” Erdogan said. “The steps we will take, the right decisions we will take here today will help ease concerns in the region and our countries.”
Under the pact, Putin and Erdogan have agreed to help the nearly 1,000,000 refugees that have fled from Idlib return to their homes. Many of those displaced are living out in the open according to the United Nations and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. This deepens an already dire humanitarian crisis in the nine-year-old civil war that has plagued the country. There are already over three million refugees living in Turkey that have fled the fighting in Syria.
Putin and Erdogan have also agreed to establish a secure corridor along a stretch 3.7 miles to the north and 3 miles to the south of the M4 highway, which is a key east-west highway in Syria’s Idlib province. The two sides also agreed to hold joint patrols on it as of March 15 to ease fighting in the region.
The defense ministers for each country will work out the parameters of the corridor at a later date.
While Turkey has gained concessions from Moscow, this ceasefire didn’t address two key sticking points: Firstly, it didn’t establish any “no-fly zones” over Idlib, where Russian aircraft have supposedly bombed civilian areas indiscriminately. Secondly, the agreement made no mention of Syrian troops withdrawing from the Idlib region. It is unknown if the refugees would re-enter their towns and villages with the regime troops being close by.
Syrian civilians will have to make the decision on whether to return or not. But most do not feel the fighting is over at all since Assad has made it clear that he intends to retake the whole of the country by force.