The demilitarization deal for Idlib, agreed upon by Russia and Turkey, faces a key deadline on Oct 15.
Armed groups near the frontlines separating rebel and jihadi fighters from regime-aligned forces in Syria are mandated by the agreement to pull back and give up their heavy weapons. While most groups have reportedly complied, one group appears to be hunkering down in their territory and preparing for battle.
The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which has around 3,000 fighters living around the frontline-town of Jisr-al-Shughur, may be functionally rejecting the terms of the deal by refusing to withdraw from the demilitarization zone.
If they stay past the Oct 15 deadline, regime-aligned forces may get the justification they need to storm into the territory controlled by the TIP, violently restarting the Idlib offensive.
Where the TIP Stands
The Syrian regime and its ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, have been clear that they consider the Idlib demilitarization deal to be a temporary one, and that eventually, Syria will regain control over Idlib.
Turkey has been trying to do damage control in Idlib in coordinating with Russia by reigning in opposition groups in Idlib. TIP threatens to undo much of those efforts.
Although TIP have not officially released a statement indicating whether they accept or reject the deal, their refusal to withdraw with send a message to Russia, Turkey and Syria that they will not comply with the terms of the deal and may only be neutralized with violence. Syrian and Russian forces have emphasized that they consider many of the groups in Idlib terrorists who need to be purged from the country, including the TIP.
Russian and Syrian-backed media have reported that TIP has actually been digging trenches near the strategic town of Kabanah, which lies inside the buffer zone and would signal that TIP is preparing for a last stand of sorts. While there is reason to doubt the veracity of regime-backed outlets’ reporting on opposition groups, the fact that they are reporting on TIP’s supposed efforts to spoil the deal indicates the regimes may be looking for reasons to re-launch the military offensive as an anti-terror operation.
This puts the pressure on Turkey to quickly force TIP to pull out of the buffer zone, which it will have trouble doing. Turkish Armed Forces are also operating checkpoints near TIP areas, meaning any offensive against TIP risks entangling Turkish soldiers.
In other words, the TIP’s resistance to the demilitarization deal may have wide-reaching consequences for the entire region.
The TIP Is an Isolated Jihadi Group
Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP Propaganda)
The TIP is a strange outfit. It is relatively isolated from the other warring parties in Syria and thus less negotiable than other opposition groups.
They are mostly made up of Uyghur jihadis seeking to establish a separate, Islamic state in Xinjiang, China and as such, have little strategic goals in Syria besides profiling their own cause and gaining combat experience. With their own culture and language, they operate on their own terms and in a concentrated section near Latakia, though they have a strong working relationship with the main jihadi umbrella group in the region, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
They are relatively well-armed and veteran fighters, who have spearheaded several offensives in coordination with HTS.
In the past, Turkey had a relatively permissive attitude towards Uyghur fighters. Many TIP fighters made their way into Syria via Turkey, and Chinese officials have repeatedly accused Turkey have helping separatist Uyghur causes.
But Turkey designated the TIP’s predecessor group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terror group in 2017. China has also been strengthening its economic ties to Turkey, while pressing the country to crack down against Uyghur separatists.
For the TIP now, this means they have nowhere to go and no reliable state allies to bail them out. They cannot be bused to another region in Syria as there are no other major rebel strongholds.
They also likely cannot be negotiated with, as they are foreign fighters who risk extradition to China. Practically speaking, if the TIP decides to hold out in Idlib and try to defend against a regime onslaught, they could rip open the Idlib region by inviting Syrian and Russian troops into opposition territory.
Idlib is home to about three million civilians, half of whom are internally displaced refugees. Turkey has closed the border with Syria and does not appear to be willing to re-open any crossings, meaning the Syrians stuck in Idlib are on their own.
The U.N. chief has previously warned that the Idlib offensive may trigger a cataclysmic humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. That offensive may begin again soon.
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