Few pieces of good news come out of Syria, sad to say. And all the news from there adds to a tangled web of both ground truth and manoeuvring, making prediction or interpretation particularly hard. This made the deal at Sochi on 17th September between Turkey and Russia on a ceasefire and separation of forces in Idlib province such welcome news - and such a surprise. Idlib province is the last opposition-held part of Syrian territory, in a war that has devastated the country over the past seven and a half years. In addition to its usual population, it is the place of refuge of Syrians who have taken refuge from the fighting elsewhere and from the ruthless punishments carried out by the government's forces on those it believes were opponents. The total is thought to be near three million.
Some of these internally displaced people arrived only fairly recently, for example from the outer Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, which was finally overwhelmed by regime firepower in April this year. Their evacuation was under UN and Russian auspices. But the great majority of the population in Idlib have been there for years, living under arrangements for local government which have developed organically in the absence of rule from Damascus. One of the impressive features of the Syrian revolt against dictatorship has been the way in which civil society has spontaneously organised such essentials as health, education, communications and local security. This emerged from a society which had been prevented from undertaking voluntary work of any significant kind for about half a century, as the regime looked suspiciously on possible rivals to its monopoly of power and patronage. It is a powerful testimony to the deeply cooperative and humane instincts of Syrian society, which are found also in Lebanon and other heirs of Greater Syria, and which remain a great source of hope.
In Idlib and other parts of Syria, before the regime re-imposed itself, this spontaneous self-organising has gradually come under the control of dominant forces representing the jihadist groups. They are probably the majority of the estimated total of around 60,000 fighters present. Just as in areas controlled by the so-called Islamic State, harsh norms of social behaviour and religious observance were imposed, so something similar has happened in much of the opposition areas. It has now taken concentrated form in Idlib. Militias which keep changing names but which are direct descendants of Al Qaeda have tightened their grip over much of these free areas. With them are the foreign fighters of the Turkestan Islamic Party, an ethnic Uigur group which was founded in Western China. Their ideology is alien to the mass of the Syrian population they have taken control of. For most, it is as repellent and oppressive as the behaviour of the regime itself, which at least had the merit of preserving social space from imposed Islamism. However, things change over years, and in the horrific circumstances of a war like Syria's. There is evidence that numbers of fighters have joined the Islamist militias not only for the good pay and the chance to defend their families but because they too have come to see Islamic beliefs as a source of strength and direction. In civilian society too, such beliefs are found to be a comfort and point of reference.
The ceasefire and disengagement plan agreed at Sochi does not have the signature of the Syrian government. Typically, Damascus reserves the right to unleash an assault whenever it chooses. Its close ally, Iran, on whose Shi’a militias imported from outside the Damascus government largely depends for fighting capacity, has welcomed the agreement on humanitarian grounds but is also not a signatory. While the Russians have the task of keeping the outer perimeter around the besieged province and deterring attacks, Turkey has taken on the harder and perhaps unachievable task of removing the hardline Islamist militias from the inside. It has secured their agreement to withdraw their heavy weapons by seven kilometres, by the deadline of 15th October. President Erdoğan stated at the press conference at Sochi that the "opposition" would remain inside Idlib territory and that radical groups would not operate there. He directed his criticism at the Kurdish forces further east, accusing them of being terrorists, but for the other players the Kurds have no significance in the situation in Idlib.
What can be done to separate out the Islamist militias that Syria, Iran, Russia, China and Turkey regard as long-term threats to their national security? Where could they go, and what would happen to their families? There are parallels in Iraq following the liberation of Mosul and other territories from years of rule by the so-called Islamic State. Can there be any practical solution? Who is really a civilian and who a militia fighter? What of the unarmed parts of the population who are sympathetic to the resistance to tyranny (in the case of Syria) put up by militias fighting under an Islamist banner? Universal human values include the freedom of non-violent belief and the right of civilians to protection in conflict. They are at stake here.
Achieving the next steps of the disengagement will be very difficult. Russia was right to heed the warning of the severe damage to its reputation if it were seen to condone a military assault on Idlib, which would have caused massive civilian casualties. Turkey was right to seek a diplomatic way forward and has taken on a difficult task. It deserves the full support in this of the regional and international powers.
By coincidence, a film was released this week which recalls the first, horrific, deliberate massacre of civilians by the Syrian regime in this conflict. It is a brilliant documentary, Under the Wire, covering the destruction of the Baba Amr quarter of Homs in February 2012. Anyone who sees it will understand the fate that still hangs over Idlib.
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