For weeks, it had appeared as if the last Syrian dissident bastion of Idlib was to be razed to submission by the regime forces of President Bashar Al Assad, his Iranian militias on the ground and his Russian air support in the skies, setting the 3.5 million who live there on a perilous ordeal of survival. Already, artillery bombardments and selective air strikes had begun to soften the redoubts of the various rebel forces who hold the district and city, and it appeared as if the all but inevitable carnage would begin in earnest.
But there is now at least a glimmer of hope that those 3.5 million might be able to endure and hold out anew with word that both Turkey and Russia have agreed to create a demilitarised buffer zone in a narrow strip across Idlib province that will divide friend from foe. The welcome development came following a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on Monday, and the proposed buffer zone will be manned by Russian forces on the ground, with the area taking effect by a deadline of October 15. Certainly, the immediate effect of this agreement is to put on hold a final assault on Idlib, a military operation that would have inevitably wrought death, destruction and untold suffering on the civilians caught between the massed Syrian forces and rebel groups defending the city.
Good news is indeed a rare commodity in Syria these past seven years, and while the agreed buffer zone was only announced on Monday, it at least offers the prospect of a lull in the fighting in the northwestern province, the last to remain in full armed opposition to the Al Assad regime. All too often in the past, be it in Aleppo, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, we have witnessed the carnage, death and destruction brought on a civilian population unable to seek refuge or sanctuary from the bombing and bloodshed. Too often in the past, the international community has been unable and indeed unwilling to organise humanitarian relief and safe corridors for the sick, injured and broken people to leave for safety. At least now, thanks to this tentative deal, there is the prospect that the civilian population may be spared such suffering and sacrifice.
The buffer zone will be up to 15 kilometres wide and will serve to put space between the combatants. Clearly, if indeed the demilitarised zone can be established and stripped of arms and armies, then it leaves Idlib isolated but intact. The question remains, however, what will come of it down the road? Is the inevitable assault just postponed until such a time as the regime forces have amassed more strength?