- The Idlib offensive has been postponed, pending a demilitarization deal between Russia and Turkey
- The Turkistan Islamic Party has little reason to accept that deal however
- The TIP may threaten the deal by keeping their arms and refusing to be constrained by Turkey
A bilateral agreement between Turkey and Russia to establish demilitarized zone in Idlib, Syria has been reached and praised universally. The agreement establishes a 15-20-kilometer buffer zone on either side of the border separating opposition and regime fighters in Idlib.
The immediate implication is that an all-out assault on Idlib by the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, appears postponed for the time being. But it also calls for all insurgent groups operating inside the area to leave by October 15, although Turkish-backed forces will reportedly be allowed to stay in the zones with light arms. Turkey has the onus to enforce this term, and requires it to exert control over groups that may not cede to the agreement.
Whether Turkey can reign in all the groups, including the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), remains to be seen: there are 60,000 insurgents currently living in Idlib. If it cannot, the agreement may fall apart and each side will be forced back to the drawing table on resolving the Idlib crisis.
One group that may spoil the demilitarization agreement is the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), who are well-equipped veterans of the Syrian conflict that are linked with HTS but maintain their own distinct agenda: platforming their cause for creating a breakaway Islamic State in Xinjiang, China.
Syria, for them, is a global stage to both draw attention to their agenda and gain experience on the battlefield. The demilitarization agreement threatens to neutralize them and their goals.
The TIP has little reason to acquiesce to the demilitarization agreement: ceding to its terms brings the group closer into the orbit of Turkey, who may target the group for extradition to China or a Chinese partner country to appease it. China, for its part, is moving closer to Turkey and has vowed to eliminate the TIP and any violent Uyghur group.
The web of relationships involving the TIP is complicated, not least because they are a primary target of China but are operating in a theater that is out of China’s direct reach. But the implication of all of this is simple: the TIP, looking to survive, could be a spoiler to the demilitarization agreement.
The TIP’s Dilemma
Although most opposition groups praised the terms of the demilitarization agreement, that allowed them to continue operating in Idlib, HTS’s Ibaa News Agency compared the deal to the notorious Srebrenica ‘safe zone’ that allowed the cornering and genocide of thousands of Muslims in 1993 by Serbian forces. HTS then, does not appear to appreciate the deal, which calls for it to give up of its military arms and assets except for light arms.
But Turkey and HTS have maintained something of a working relationship since Turkish forced entered into Idlib last year as part of the Astana Agreements, that established Idlib as a ‘de-escalation zone.’ One group it has far less control over is TIP. If it gives up its heavy arms, the militant group will be completely disempowered and isolated.
A unique outfit in the Syrian conflict, the TIP’s membership is primarily Uyghur Muslims who hail from the Xinjiang province of northwestern China. Though they have ties and a localized working partnership with HTS in Idlib, they aren’t formally a part of the umbrella organization, and maintain their own sets of goals and strategic priorities in Idlib.
TIP’s membership and families number 3,000, and they are all concentrated near the Syrian town of Jis-al-Shughur, which lies right by the agreed-upon demilitarization lines.
The pro-regime outlet, Al-Masdar News, reports that both HTS and TIP have rejected the agreement, leaving their fate in Idlib uncertain.
Most of the TIP’s leadership lives in Waziristan, while many of their fighters are currently holed up on southwestern Idlib. They’ve been active in the Syrian war since 2015, proving to be one of the more reliable and well-armed jihadi outfits in the country.
Many of their members got into Syria via Turkey, who until recently, had been tolerant of their presence inside both Turkey and Syria. But now that China is simultaneously courting Turkey as a major trading partner while cracking down on its own Uyghur population in Xinjiang, Turkey has steadily distanced itself from supporting Uyghur interests and the TIP.
China has been closely watching the ongoing crisis in Idlib with an eye to the TIP, making sure that the fighters are not allowed to escape into third countries and make their way back to eastern Asia.
This leaves the TIP more or less trapped where they are in Idlib. Unless they can be convinced to disarm and acquiesce to Turkey, they may continue their armed resistance and spoil the demilitarization agreement.
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