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Turkey and Russia reached a ceasefire in Syria. Will it hold?

It may halt the humanitarian catastrophe, but it is shaky at best.

Russian President Vladimir Putin Receives Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan In Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greet each other during their talks at the Kremlin on March 5, 2020, in Moscow.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

At midnight Friday local time, a Turkey-Russia brokered ceasefire went into effect in Idlib, Syria. The agreement looks to be holding so far, if shakily.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to the deal during talks in Moscow on Thursday, after a Turkish offensive into northwestern Syria against the Syrian regime dramatically escalated fighting in Idlib province this week.

The ceasefire deal will largely halt the warfare in Idlib, but it also concedes territorial gains for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been waging a bloody campaign to retake Idlib, the last major outpost held by opposition fighters in Syria.

The deal establishes a security corridor six kilometers to the north and south of the M4, a key east-west roadway that, along with the M5, effectively reconnects the major cities under the Syrian regime’s control. Turkey and Russia also agreed to conduct joint patrols in this area, starting March 15.

The deal is a win for both Assad and Russia, and a major loss for Turkey and the anti-Syrian regime rebels in Idlib, which oppose Assad. (Islamist extremist groups tied to al-Qaeda, specifically Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, are also active in the area.) Turkey was basically forced to accept the reality of Assad’s gains in Idlib, which includes those strategic highways.

Assad’s offensive to reclaim Idlib began last spring and has since intensified, displacing about 1 million Syrians since December 2019. In just the past few weeks, Idlib has witnessed one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the entire nine-year civil war.

The civilians fleeing Assad’s violence are pushing toward an ever-shrinking area near Turkey’s border, which remains closed to refugees. Erdoğan cannot politically afford to accept additional Syrian refugees, as the country already hosts close to 4 million.

Last week, a Syrian government airstrike killed about three dozen Turkish troops, pushing Turkey to invade and directly challenge Syria’s forces. Russia (along with Iran) backs Assad, and has aided the regime’s attempts to wrest Idlib back into his control. As Turkey and Syria continued to provoke each other last week, the prospect of a direct confrontation between Turkey, a NATO ally, and Russia looked more plausible than ever.

This ceasefire deal takes the two sides away from the brink, at least for now. Ankara and Moscow reached a ceasefire deal in Idlib in September 2018, which largely held until the spring of 2019.

After that, Erdoğan and Putin tried to reinstate truces, but they quickly fell apart. Assad amped up the ferocity of his offensive late last year and has relentlessly bombarded Idlib province ever since.

Another ceasefire — which the international community, including Turkey’s NATO allies, encouraged — looked like the only way to stop the immediate humanitarian disaster.

Though the question remains of how long this one will hold.

Will this ceasefire hold? Maybe, but the long-term solution is still unclear.

The ceasefire deal did not completely stop the fighting in Idlib. Turkey said it killed 21 Syrian troops in retaliation for the death of two of its soldiers. Al-Jazeera noted reports of sporadic fighting in Idlib, but the air raids have, for now, largely ceased.

“There has been no aerial bombardment so far but the situation is very tense, with all sides wary of how long the ceasefire will last,” Mohammed al-Ali, an activist from Idlib, told Al Jazeera.

The ceasefire does avert the urgent humanitarian crisis for now, hopefully putting a stop to most of the violence and intense fighting. But it is still very wobbly and does not solve the fundamental conundrum Idlib faces.

Approximately 3.5 million Syrians live in Idlib, about half of whom were displaced from other parts of Syria during the years of civil war. Assad wants to retake all Syrian territory captured during the civil war, as both a symbolic and strategic victory. That’s forced millions to flee, but they have nowhere to go, as Turkey’s borders are sealed.

This ceasefire may quiet the violence, but it essentially freezes the conflict in place. And it offers no solution for the millions of refugees who’ve been displaced and lack shelter, adequate medical treatment, and food. According to UNICEF and the World Food Program, in the northern part of Idlib province, more than half a million children have been displaced in the past three months, an average of 6,000 a day.

What is clear is that Russia — and, by proxy, Assad — seems to have the upper hand here. Turkey sought NATO support for its offensive into Syria but did not get what it really wanted: missiles and a possible no-fly zone. The United States offered public support and promised $100 million for the United Nations’ humanitarian efforts this week but did not send Ankara the Patriot missiles it really wanted.

Turkey also tried pressure the European Union by using desperate refugees as political cudgels, ceasing to block Syrians from traveling to the content. Greece, the main landing for those attempting to come to Europe, pushed back the refugees and kept its border sealed.

Greek border officials clashed with migrants, and Europe accused Turkey of using “migratory pressure for political purposes.” Turkey absolutely, and grossly, did this — but the EU is also reluctant to take in any more refugees or get deeply involved in the crisis in Idlib. The US, with its strict limits on refugees, has also failed here.

But this all leaves Turkey with a lot less leverage than it could have in negotiations with Russia, which has proven, once again, that it is the power broker in Syria.

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