In Idlib, in northern Syria, a ceasefire filled with disquiet has begun. After a difficult beginning, in which fighting continued across the front and marketplaces and hospitals continued to be bombed, aspects of civilian life have resumed.
In Syria’s pocket of insurgency, the movement of people away from the front has decreased, with some returning to their homes. Others have begun queuing for bread and visiting marketplaces.
This follows a major Turkish campaign against the air force, air defences and military vehicles of the Assad regime, which shot down three regime aircraft, diminished its capacity to defend itself from aerial attack and pushed the regime coalition’s ground forces back sufficiently far for rebels and Islamist forces to recapture territory lost in recent weeks.
The ceasefire means rebels must give up those temporary gains and it re-established joint patrols by Turkish forces and Russian troops.
For Turkey, the ceasefire is a gamble. It has shown that its manned air force and drones can do real damage to the Syrian government’s means of waging war.
In shooting down regime aircraft and demonstrating the weakness of Syria’s air defences, Turkey grounded the fleet that had bombed Idlib and the surrounding area relentlessly. In targeting regime convoys and vehicles, Turkey ensured that the regime could not continue its offensive.
However, every ceasefire in Syria’s war has proved little more than an opportunity for the regime to recoup its strength, replace its losses and wait for a more opportune time to resume its military moves.
Any new regime offensive could lead to the collapse of the Idlib enclave, risking the lives of its 3 million residents and further strain the possibility that Turkey could hold back the tides of refugees likely to head north; One million people have moved away from the front line towards the Turkish border between the beginning and end of the last regime offensive.
Turkey has attempted to re-establish a working relationship with Russia, which might hold the regime back for a time. This was agreed March 5 in Moscow by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But this is not all that it is doing.
Turkey is simultaneously preparing for more fighting between its forces and the regime and the prospect that violence might continue. It moved more equipment and troops into Idlib and mounted a sustained campaign to claim the success of its short drive against the regime.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, co-chairman of Doctors Under Fire and a frequent visitor to observe Idlib’s humanitarian situation, said: ‘Any ceasefire in Idlib is welcome but they have a habit of being infinitesimally short [in duration] and in effect.
‘However, this time the Turks have shown their mettle and the downing of… regime helicopters [and] jets has rattled the Syrian Air Force and massively reduced the amount of barrel bombs, which have killed a large percentage of the 500,000 civilians killed in this conflict’.
Idlib, which lacks international aid, has had its crossing from Turkey repeatedly restricted as a result of wrangling in the United Nations.
‘There are 3 million civilians trapped in Idlib and they must be fed and watered. The UN, which seems well able to get aid to Damascus, must redouble its efforts to put humanitarian aid into the vast, sprawling and desperate refugee camps between the Turkish-Syrian border,’ de Bretton-Gordon said.
Even a more enthusiastic international effort to provide aid would be stymied by a resumption of hostilities. Either retaining the ceasefire or threatening the regime with serious military consequences if it transgressed will each require a serious international effort.
Although some NATO members offered their solidarity for Turkey’s losses and its fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad, none was required by treaty to join in and so none did. Various countries have suggested that the peace in northern Syria be maintained by the creation of a no-fly zone but none have attempted or offered to assist in the creation of one.
‘The ceasefire is an arm wrestle, in effect, between the Turks and the Russians, who must prevent Assad from arbitrarily attacking again. Turkey would be greatly helped in this endeavour if NATO, and most especially the EU, which has most to lose from another 4 million refugees in Europe, stood full square with Turkey emotionally and physically’, de Bretton-Gordon said.
‘Every day of a ceasefire in Syria is to be applauded but this one will only work if the political ‘big dogs’ get behind it, otherwise it will go the way of all the others and the continuation of mass slaughter of those who cannot protect themselves.’
The ceasefire in Idlib appears to be holding but it cannot be expected to do so forever.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.