The Sochi Agreement: Theoretically Misguided in Concept and Implementation

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a news conference following their talks in Sochi, Russia September 17, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

By: Jodi Brignola, Columnist

On September 17, 2018, Russia and Turkey made a deal to stall, and potentially prevent a Syrian regime offensive against opposition-held areas of Idlib and its environs, which include parts of northern Hama and western Aleppo provinces. Together they signed a memorandum on “The Stabilization of the Situation in Idlib De-Escalation Area,” which stipulated a 10-point deal that the international community hopes will stave off an offensive that would endanger the roughly 3 million Syrians residing in the area.[i] Unfortunately, the deal is unlikely to bring long-term stability to the province due to theoretical flaws in the agreement and Turkey’s method of implementation.

Idlib is the last opposition-held enclave in Syria, and contains over a dozen opposition groups—Salafi-jihadist and otherwise—from throughout the country. Approximately 70,000 fighters are present in total.[ii] Many of the civilians and fighters present were transplanted to the province through a string of evacuation deals between the regime and the opposition as pro-regime offensives systematically reconquered the country. The variegated character of the opposition in Idlib makes brokering an agreement particularly challenging. The Russian-Turkish deal calls for the creation of 15-20 km demilitarized zones along the lines of contact, from which opposition groups must remove specific heavy weaponry, and from which “radical terrorist groups” “will be removed”. Particular groups are not specified in the memorandum’s text and the exact lines of the zone remain unclear. [iii] With deadlines fast approaching— October 10th for heavy weaponry and October 15th for ‘terrorist groups’— it is both unclear and unlikely that Turkey and the opposition elements it supports will be able to meet the conditions detailed. [iv] To date, some factions have reportedly started withdrawing their heavy weapons from the delineated zone, but even those closest to Turkey have bristled at specific stipulations.[v] Though some groups may comply with part or all of the provisions, serious flaws in theory and logic underwriting the agreement and its implementation threaten its longevity.

For one, the agreement requires Turkey to force powerful opposition groups to act against their own interests. In requiring all “radical terrorist groups” to withdraw from the demilitarized zone, Turkey must incentivize or force terrorist groups like Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS) and Huras ad-Din to comply with an agreement that ultimately aims for their extinction or dismantlement. The agreement itself states the shared “determination to combat terrorism in Syria in all forms and manifestations,” while Turkey reportedly seeks to dismantle HTS in line with the agreement by “separating a minority of foreign jihadists within Tahrir al-Sham from a majority of its Syrian followers, who could eventually be rehabilitated.” [vi] Unfortunately, academic literature suggests that opposition factions prioritize their own group’s survival over opposition-wide strategic objects. As Peter Krause argues in his work on national movements, while elements of a national movements or oppositions are bound by their strategic goals, they prioritize their organizational interests over these ultimate objectives. “All members of a movement share a strategic goal such as statehood, but member groups seek to ensure their survival and maximize their strength above all else.”[vii] Applied to the case of Idlib, this research indicates that while all opposition factions may share the ultimate interest of preventing the regime and its allies from re-taking Idlib province, these groups are likely to prioritize their organizational survival over this goal. Thus, it is not surprising that Huras ad-Din issued an official statement rejecting the agreement, while HTS has signaled its disapproval.[viii] Even if HTS and other radical factions comply in the short-term, their organization survival will likely depend on their renegation at some point, making long-term compliance unlikely.

Secondly, an agreement that requires compliance by factions despite their best interest is especially susceptible to spoilers. In the case of Idlib, these potential spoilers bear significance on the peace process. While spoilers are to be expected in any deal encompassing multiple armed parties with disparate interests, the sanctity of an agreement of this kind depends on the will and capacity of guarantors to mitigate such threats. As noted by Kelly M. Greenhill and Solomon Major in their work on the subject,

All parties to a conflict are potential spoilers, but only the powerful ones tend to become manifest threats… [Spoilers’] actions undermine the process only when the other actors on the ground or the custodians of peace are unwilling or unable to contain the effects of their doing so… the distribution of relative power and the availability of sufficient carrots and sticks are the primary variables that determine whether a spoiler will undermine a peace process. [ix]

In the framework of Idlib, HTS is in prime position to be a meaningful spoiler as the group controls approximately 60 percent of the province, making Turkey and Turkish-backed opposition factions’ capacity to coerce it into an agreement against its interests that much more difficult. [x] At the same time, spoiling could result simply from inaction at any point in the agreement’s implementation. For example, HTS could refuse to retreat or remove all heavy weapons from its stronghold in Jisr al-Shughour, a town in northeast Idlib included in the proposed demilitarized zone, and will likely continue rejecting calls for it to disband and join the NLF. A recent string of assassinations targeting HTS leaders may be part of a concerted Turkish effort to weaken the organization, and thus its capacity to obstruct the agreement.[xi] However, the strategic significance of these assassinations remains unclear.

Also misguided is that the way that Turkey is attempting to ‘strengthen’ the opposition in Idlib via an opposition-wide coalition. Research indicates that this strategy may actually lead to spoiling, infighting, and counterproductive violence in the future, even if the deal were to hold past the upcoming deadlines. Since May, Turkey has been trying to unite opposition groups in Idlib and its environs under one banner, the National Liberation Front, in furtherance of Turkish strategic objectives such as maintaining opposition control over the province (which borders Turkey) and providing a check against Kurdish fighters in the area.[xii] Once again, Dr. Krause’s research suggests that Turkey’s attempt to achieve strategic objectives—the opposition’s and its own—through coalition-building may have counterproductive results in the long-term. Krause argues that alliances do not erase the loyalties that bind members to their initial organizations. While groups may successfully cooperate in an alliance to further a specific goal, members and their actions demonstrate a prioritization of organizational objectives. Thus, Krause finds that in united movements, groups still engage in infighting and counterproductive violence, which inhibit strategic success. [xiii] In the present context, Krause’s findings suggest that counterproductive violence within the opposition in Idlib will continue even if an all-inclusive NLF coalition were to materialize, further increasing the chances of spoiling a long-term ceasefire. While opposition factions within the NLF and HTS continue infighting, hopes that a coalition would effectively end this violence are misguided. [xiv]

Academic research suggests that the Idlib ceasefire, like the others implemented at various points throughout the seven-years-long conflict in Syria, is unlikely to last.[xv] Recent developments further reinforce this point. Yesterday, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad reiterated his interest in eventually reconquering all of Idlib. Meanwhile, Turkish and Russian guarantors have been unable to prevent violations of the agreement from both sides.[xvi] Without addressing the factors that contribute to the ceasefire’s weakness, the population of over 3 million Syrians trapped in Idlib likely face a grim future.











[i] “Full Text of Turkey-Russia Memorandum on Idlib Revealed,” The National, accessed October 1, 2018,; Andrew Higgins and Rick Gladstone, “Russia and Turkey Announce Demilitarized Zone in Last Rebel-Held Part of Syria – The New York Times,” September 17, 2018,

[ii] Rebecca Collard, “Idlib Could Be the Last Battlefield of the Syrian Civil War | Time,” Time, August 16, 2018,

[iii] Ammar Hamou and Barrett Limoges, “Idlib Ceasefire Remains Fraught with Obstacles as Turkish-Backed Rebels Announce Withdrawal from Buffer Zone – Syria Direct,” Syria Direct, accessed October 8, 2018,

[iv] “Full Text of Turkey-Russia Memorandum on Idlib Revealed,” The National, accessed October 1, 2018

[v] “First Rebel Group Begins Withdrawal from Demilitarized Zone In…,” Reuters, September 30, 2018,;

“Syrian Rebels Say Turkey Promises No Russian Patrols in Idlib Zone,” Reuters, October 2, 2018,;

Ammar Hamou and Barrett Limoges, “Idlib Ceasefire Remains Fraught with Obstacles as Turkish-Backed Rebels Announce Withdrawal from Buffer Zone – Syria Direct,” Syria Direct, accessed October 8, 2018,

[vi] “Full Text of Turkey-Russia Memorandum on Idlib Revealed,” The National, accessed October 1, 2018,.

“Syria Rebels Think Jihadists Will Quit Idlib Buffer Zone,” Reuters, September 27, 2018,

[vii] Peter Krause, “The Structure of Success: How the Internal Distribution of Power Drives Armed Group Behavior and National Movement Effectiveness,” International Security 38, no. 3 (January 2014): 72–116,, 114.

[viii] “Huras Al-Din Armed Group Rejects Demilitarisation Deal for Syria’s Idlib,” Middle East Eye, September 23, 2018,;

Joshua Landis, “Report on HTS Run Conference in Idlib to Denounce the Turkish-Russian Deal.Https://Twitter.Com/AbuJamajem/Status/1043948100845473792 …,” Tweet, @joshua_landis (blog), September 23, 2018,

[ix] Kelly M Greenhill and Solomon Major, “Perils of Profiling: Civil War Spoilers and the Collapse of Intrastate Peace Accords,” International Security 31, no. 3 (Winter 2006): 7–40, 37.

[x] Louisa Loveluck and Ghalia al Alwani, “Syrian Rebels in Idlib Target Those Who Might Surrender as Government Assault Looms,” September 7, 2018,

[xi] Charles Lister, “Intra-Jihadi Tensions Are Rising yet Again in Northwestern #Syria, amid Pressure to Agree to the #Russia-#Turkey DMZ Deal. Since the Agreement in #Sochi, There Have Been 6 Assassination Attacks (X4 #HTS, X1 Huras Al-Din, X1 TIP). Leading Regional AQ Ideologues Falling out Too.Pic.Twitter.Com/9sk3KTmhvu,” Tweet, @Charles_Lister (blog), October 3, 2018,

[xii]Leith Aboufadel, “Turkish-Backed Rebels Release New Promotional Video from Northwest Syria,” AMN – Al-Masdar News | المصدر نيوز, September 28, 2018,; “First Rebel Group Begins Withdrawal from Demilitarised Zone in Syria’s Idlib: Monitor,” Middle East Eye, October 1,

[xiii] Krause, “The Structure of Success,” 114.

[xiv] “Syria Rebels Say Shifting Heavy Arms from Idlib Buffer Zone • The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, October 7, 2018,

[xv] Charles Lister, “The Urgency of Idlib: The Impending Regime Offensive and the Delicate Balance in Syria’s Northwest,” August 3, 2018,

[xvi] Associated Press, “Syrian President Says Russia-Turkey Idlib Deal ‘Temporary,’” Fox News, October 7, 2018,; 

Ammar Hamou and Barrett Limoges, “Idlib Ceasefire Remains Fraught with Obstacles as Turkish-Backed Rebels Announce Withdrawal from Buffer Zone – Syria Direct,” Syria Direct, accessed October 8, 2018,



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