What will happen in Idlib?

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Let's hope that President Erdoğan's efforts in the Tehran meeting on behalf of millions of local people in Idlib will be heeded by other powers, and that a future road map can be set for Syria

On Friday, a historic summit took place in Tehran, where the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran held a trilateral meeting to discuss the future of Syria. Obviously, observers were most interested in where the three countries stood on Idlib. More significantly, some four million civilians, who currently live in Idlib, were watching the summit. In truth, it would not be wrong to argue that the trilateral summit captured the world's attention.

Iran's decision to broadcast the summit without informing Russian and Turkish officials was a first in history. Consequently, we were able to follow all of the discussions between the three countries on a critical issue. During the talks, it appeared that Turkey, Russia and Iran had certain differences of opinion on Idlib. Addressing the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did not go to great lengths to hide their appetite for a military offensive against Idlib. Without a doubt, the two leaders enjoyed the extra self-confidence that the Assad regime gave them by seizing control of many former rebel strongholds. In their view, most of Syria had been cleansed of "terrorists." Now, it was time to target Idlib.

The Turkish president's remarks turned around the negotiations. Speaking in Tehran, Erdoğan stressed three points: (1) The status quo in Idlib must be preserved. (2) We cannot allow a fait accompli in Idlib under the pretext of fighting terrorism. (3) Terrorists must be removed from Idlib, but there must be a distinction between the civilian population and terrorist groups. Building on this broad framework, he proceeded to call for a cease-fire. It was noteworthy that Erdoğan's call ended up being broadcast to the world thanks to Iran's unannounced decision. Seeing that the Russians and the Iranians were opposed to a cease-fire, the Turkish leader said that the parties must lay down their arms. The issue came up again in the trilateral meeting after the initial negotiations. Finally, both Putin and Rouhani stated in the joint press conference that the parties must lay down their arms – which meant that they accepted Erdoğan's proposal.

In the wake of last week's historic summit, it remains to be seen what will happen in Idlib. There were some clues scattered in articles 2, 3 and 4 of the final communique: Article 2, which reads that Turkey, Russia and Iran "rejected all efforts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of fighting terrorism," related to the steps that Tehran and Damascus had taken in Idlib. Another important point was Article 3, which stressed that the countries "agreed to engage the situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone in line with the spirit of cooperation that defines the Astana format." After all, the Astana format stresses the need to distinguish between the civilian population and armed groups participating in the cease-fire.

All of those points were featured in the final communique because Ankara demanded them. In other words, reading the text, one could start expecting good things to happen in Idlib. The call on armed groups to lay down their arms could be seen as a sign that the regime and its supporters will pause their attacks on Idlib and coordinated strikes against terrorists will begin. The question is whether the terms will be implemented. Sometimes, the situation on the ground tends to be quite different from what one finds in official papers. Throughout the Syrian civil war, various parties failed to keep their promises on countless occasions. As such, it is crucial to closely monitor what steps the regime and its supporters will take in the future.

So what if the regime and its supporters fail to abide by the Tehran communique? The Turkish president answered that question as well by warning that "we will neither watch from the sidelines nor participate in such a game if the world turns a blind eye to the killing of tens of thousands of innocent people to further the regime's interests." Let us hope that Turkey's efforts will pay off and Idlib's four million residents can avoid the potential suffering.

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