The cease-fire agreement that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin reached for Syria’s battered Idlib province was hanging by a thread Tuesday.
All sides claimed violations of the terms of the deal that legitimized Turkey's extended military presence in Syria's northwest, while enshrining territorial gains by President Bashar al-Assad's Russian-backed army.
"Despite the cease-fire, several towns in the southern Idlib countryside and Aleppo's western outskirts are still being bombed daily by artillery shelling," said Sayeed Mousa Zaidan, spokesman for the area's civilian defense force commonly known as the White Helmets. "Our teams have documented the dropping of 91 artillery shells since the agreement took effect."
On Sunday, the White Helmets rescue teams pulled the body of a 38-year-old man and his teenage son from under the rubble of their home in Sarmin.
The town 15 kilometers southeast of Idlib has become a flashpoint in the battle for control between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army and forces loyal to Assad.
Civilians have been using the partial lull in fighting to retrieve belongings from their bomb-destroyed homes after 35 days of continuous bombardment.
"My brother Mohammed is in Sermin getting what he can from our damaged house," said Abelhai Tannari, a 39-year-old internal medicine physician who fled the town during the winter onslaught that left 445 people in the area dead. That was the result of more than 2,000 airstrikes against the last significant remaining part of Syria yet to fall under Assad control.
"We left Sermin in early February and fled toward the Turkish border," Tannari added. "Our clinic there was targeted by the aerial bombing, and I'm now in Idlib city working to establish other medical facilities."
Aid workers and refugees say they are bracing for a resumption of hostilities, as analysts outside Syria debate which outside power gained the most from the agreement.
"From my perspective, Russia is the big winner," said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey expert at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
"Ankara could not achieve its most important objective of drawing Assad forces to the south of their observation posts."
Since 2018, Turkey has maintained 61 observation posts in northern Syria located from 2 to 100 km inside the pre-war international boundary.
Dose of reality
"This month's battle proved that fighting the YPG [a predominantly ethnic Kurdish Syrian militia] is not the same as fighting with an organized army. Turkey suffered a high number of casualties," Yanarocak said.
A Feb. 27 Syrian government attack on a Turkish patrol near the Maar Hattat observation point killed more than 30 Turkish troops.
That pivotal incident — along with the assault on Idlib's civilians — led to the escalation of the conflict as Turkey sent more troops into Syria and allowed several hundred refugees to cross into the neighboring European Union nations of Greece and Bulgaria.
Erdogan met EU and NATO leaders Monday in Brussels and asked for a re-evaluation of the refugee deal signed in 2016 between the 27-nation bloc and Turkey in light of the humanitarian crisis in Idlib.
“NATO is in a critical period in which it should clearly show the alliance’s solidarity [with Turkey],” Erdogan told reporters during a press conference alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
"[The cease-fire] solidified Turkish military heavy presence in Idlib and guarantor for the peace process," said Ammar Kahf, executive director of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, a Syrian affairs research organization in Istanbul.
"Iran is the loser and is downsized to a secondary role and subsidiary to Russia. [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani asked for a three-way summit and was ignored," Kahf added. "And the agreement stopped the regime's fast advances — at least for the short term."
Yousef Al-Hammoud, the spokesman for Ankara's allies, the 7,000-troop-strong Syrian National Army, SNA, concedes the cease-fire ceded significant territory to Assad forces.
But the SNA leadership sees strategic and humanitarian benefits in adhering to its terms.
“We see a positive avenue to this agreement as our fighters will take a rest and make sure they get a safe place for their families," said Al-Hammoud. "It will make the humanitarian situation a bit better after the aggressive attacks by Assad, Russia, and the Iranian militias in the northwest."
"Still, we should be clear that the people displaced from their towns didn't return to their homes, and that shows how ultimately people don't trust this agreement."
The lack of trust also persists on the Assad government side.
"Terrorist groups backed by the Turkish regime breached the cessation of hostilities agreement eight times during the past 24 hours," according to a statement issued by the state-run news agency SANA on Monday.
Considerable skepticism about the role Turkey and its Syrian proxy the SNA play persists even among some of Assad's opponents.
"The Syrian National Army is a tool in the hand of Turkey to be used for Ankara's interests," said Fahad Almasri, the exiled leader of the National Salvation Front in Syria.
"They recruit Syrians looking for any job opportunity, taking advantage of the poor and unemployed. Now they send many of them to fight in Libya," said Almasri, a former spokesman for the Free Syrian Army — the anti-sectarian armed resistance founded in 2012 by defectors from Assad's army.
"Only control of the Turkish intervention through NATO involvement will help bridle both Turkish domination and Iranian influence in Syria, and will help us start a transitional period to restore peace and stability and finally win the fight against extremism and terrorism," Almasri said.
Strategic assessments and policy proscriptions mean little to the four million civilians squeezed into the Idlib kill box.
"This cease-fire agreement came at the expense of what remains of the Syrians inside the country and their blood, and does not meet our minimum demands," said Zaidan, the White Helmets' spokesman. "Most are still without shelter lacking any guarantees to return to their homes, with many destroyed by artillery shelling and airstrikes.”