Deciphering the March 5 agreement in 10 articles

Deciphering the March 5 6

By Sedat Ergin

One more
time, there was no break with tradition. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and
Russian President Vladimir Putin took the tension under control with the
agreement they reached and lowered the pressure of the crisis which was
dangerously escalating.

The silence
of the weapons and introduction of the peace option is positive and will make
everybody take a deep breath. We can analyze the outcomes at the end of the
talks in Moscow under these headings:

The end of
the status quo in Idlib

The status
quo that was shaped in Idlib with the Sochi agreement signed between Turkey and
Russia on Sept. 17, 2018 was largely damaged due to the Bashar al-Assad
regime’s gains in the field since last May thanks to the massive bombing
support of the Russian air forces.

Within this
period that extended to the second week of February, the regime took under
control the whole M-5 highway that runs from north to south in Idlib’s east and
at the same time started to advance to the north towards the M-4 highway that
runs from east to west in Idlib’s South.

As a result
of this drive, an area nearly half of the size of Idlib went from the
opposition to the regime. This situation has been in a way formalized with
yesterday’s memorandum. It does not look easy to go back to the initial
geographical borders of the Sochi agreement especially in terms of the M-5 axis
and its east.

The new
status quo

With the
new agreement a new status quo has emerged in Idlib. In fact the new status quo
also formalized the new position that Turkey has de facto imposed through the
temporary military outposts it set up especially in the west of M-5 and north
of M-4 thanks to its formidable military build-up that started since the
beginning of February.

At the end,
after the intense clashes, while Idlib’s south and its eastern zone remain
under the regime area, Turkey, together with the opposition, keeps under
control a big chunk that is above the M-4 highway and west of the M-5. We can
read this development in a way as Turkey gradually setting up a “safe zone”
adjacent to its border in Idlib’s north.

On which
axis ceasefire will be implemented

In order to
understand what will happen on the field, let’s focus on the expression “the
line of contact in the Idlib de-escalation area,” used in the memorandum’s
first article.

Our
understanding of the “line of contact” should be all the points of contact
where the regime’s army confronts Turkish Armed Forces and the armed
opposition, primarily the border line starting from the furthest point in the
northwest of the M-5 highway descending 50 km to Saraqib, and especially
Saraqib. Clashes took place at the same time westward around the M-4 highway and
south of the M-4.

Shifts in
military outposts

The most
important mechanism that comes to life with the memorandum is the “safe
corridor” that will be established over the M-4 that starts from Saraqib,
stretching 55 km westward to Latakia. This corridor will stretch 6 km deep on
both sides of the highway. While it has not been expressed in a clear manner,
we can guess that probably heavy weapons within the 12 km zone will be
withdrawn behind the frontal lines.

The Turkish
Armed Forces set up temporary military outposts both on the M-4 north and south
in February. It will not be surprising to see some shifts or displacements of
some of these after the talks that are underway.

The regime
will not go beyond M-4

The safety
of this road will be assumed by Turkish and Russian soldiers through joint
patrols. In a way, the joint patrol mechanism Turkey and Russia had started
with “Operation Peace Spring” along the border of the east of River Euphrates
will also operate here. Within this framework we can guess that it will be
possible for the Assad regime to use this road for civilian purpose. That way,
Aleppo, under the regime, would be connected to Latakia on the Mediterranean
coast.

In
exchange, the regime’s access to M-4 highway advancing from the south will be
contained with this mechanism being established. Equally important is the fact
that Turkey will have the monitoring ability with Russia over the M-Idlib’s
center remains in the opposition area

The
emerging format shows that Idlib’s city center above the M-4 highway will
remain within opposition area in the period ahead. The city center is 6-7 km
north of the M-4 highway. As such, the Assad regime will have on hold its
intention to take the city center.

HTS problem
on the implementation

Terrorist
organizations in Idlib were the main focus in Putin’s statements. The
“determination to combat all forms of terrorism, and to eliminate all terrorist
groups in Syria as designated by the United Nations Security Council UNSC,” is
underlined in the fourth paragraph of the additional protocol.

Hay’at
Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) identified by the U.N. as “terrorist” has significant
field control in the opposition area north of the M-4. Idlib city is one of the
HTS’ most important power centers.

Based on
this memorandum, Russia keeps the right to act against the HTS, which remains
in the region controlled by the Turkish Armed Forces. Therefore, the Achilles’
heel in the implementation of the new agreement will be the HTS.

How will
Turkey restrain the HTS?

An
important point is the fact that Turkey has one more time registered with this
agreement its commitment to fight with the HTS. In his statement, Erdoğan said
that in addition to stopping the regime’s aggression, the additional troops
sent to Idlib aimed at restraining “other groups which do not abide by the
ceasefire.” At any rate, restraining the HTS rises as one of the most critical
issues creating vulnerability in Idlib in the period ahead.

Russia’s
commitment not to hit civilians

Similarly,
Russia has come under a notable commitment. This commitment appears under the
sentence “the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure cannot be
justified under any pretext,” in the protocol. Let’s recall that the great
majority of the aerial bombardment conducted mercilessly without any
discrimination towards civilians since May was undertaken by Russian war
planes. As such, Russia commits itself not to repeat this conduct.

Insistence
on dialogue with Assad

A point we need to underline is Putin’s statement that the agreed
memorandum “will help establish dialogue between all sides to the contention.”
It appears that Kremlin will continue its insistence to establish dialogue
between Turkey and the Assad regime in the period ahead.

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