Swarming and Machine Teaming – Defence Future Technologies DEFTECH
A workshop in Thun (Switzerland) to assess the
state-of-the-art technology and research
Chiara Sulmoni reports.
On Wednesday, 21st November 2018 armasuisseS+T (Science and Technology) organised a day-long international workshop for military personnel, researchers, specialists and company representatives, addressing the subject of ‘swarming and machine teaming’.
The event is part of a series which armasuisse Science and Technology organises on a regular basis under the trademark DEFTECH (Defence Future Technologies). These high-profile meetings allow military and civilian experts to share hindsights, anticipate technology trends and make informed decisions in the field of security.
Swarming indicates the deployment of low-cost, autonomous elements acting in coordination with one another to carry out a specific task. Generally, it’s small drones or robots.
Swarms are common in nature, where many species -birds and fish, for instance- move or operate in vast groups. Research into ‘artificial’ swarming often starts with the observation and study of animal behaviour.
Swarming is dual-use, meaning that it can take shape in the civilian environment -for instance, with commercial drones flying in formation- or the military -where it’s principally a battlefield tactics and is associated to the issue of lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS), whose ethical aspects are discussed at UN-level-. Given the rapid development of technology -and the lack of an efficient defence system should a swarming attack take place- armasuisse wished to gain a better understanding of the challenges and risks related to it. The workshop was therefore aimed at getting to know the ‘state of the art’ within this domain. Experts from different fields were called in to provide their perspectives. What follows, is a brief report of some key points which have been touched upon during this meeting, which was organised under the supervision of Quentin Ladetto, Research Programme Manager at armasuisse S+T, and introduced by Director Thomas Rothacher.
Switzerland is a global leader in drone technology. Markus Hoepflinger from Swiss Drones and Robotics Centre (affiliated to armasuisse S+T) was keen to underline right from the start that not only domestic and foreign media dub it the “Silicon Valley of robotics” or “drones centre of the world”. The very same Federal Department of Foreign Affairs is an eager proponent of Swiss expertise (for more information, visit www.homeofdrones.org). Swiss research involves both academic and technical institutes in all regions, and the industry. Today’s environment is mainly mobile robotics with the strongest capability being autonomous flights. There are however a series of potential future military applications which are being looked into, with a view to enhancing search and rescue operations for instance, or for engineering work. Markus Hoepflinger also explained that swarming in the future could dominate war, with experiments underway in Russia, China, the US, Israel and to a lesser extent the EU (e.g. Royal Air Force and Airbus). But drone warfare is not yet happening, despite what has been (questionably) described as the first swarm attack in Syria against a Russian base in January 2018.
Despite rapid progress in all fields, Vincent Boulanin of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) emphasized how misconceptions and myths around autonomous systems and artificial intelligence represent a problem, insofar they tend to make policy discussion improductive and blind us from the true possibilities and limitations of these technologies. Programming machines for general tasks is difficult, as they can not generalise from previous situations: while they do process images and understand words (consider the mobile phone application ‘Siri’, for instance) common sense is not one of their assets. On the other hand, autonomous navigation is very context-dependent, with air or underwater environments presenting less obstacles compared to land. ‘Teaming’ is an important aspect of swarming, as machines must communicate with each other and their operator; these systems can share information, perform collaborative tasks (like flying together, complete surveillance assignments, inspect buildings in uncomplex environments). But there’s no symmetrical machine-human communication and finding the right ratio can also be complex. As pertains to the military field proper, Boulanin pointed out how targeting remains the most critical application of autonomy as systems do not have the ability to make a distinction between a civilian and a military target. In the end, autonomy is much easier to achieve for commercial applications.
Martin Hagström from the Swedish Defence Research Agency underlined how having ‘many of something’ does not constitute a problem; the objective is to be able to deploy cheap, efficient sub-systems and a reduced number of ground operators. He also recalled that the antagonist perspective is considerably different from the civil perspective. Swarms rely on satellite navigation (GPS) and are therefore vulnerable to attacks by adversaries who can master a high technological command and could disrupt communication in a contested environment. ‘Robust’ systems are quite expensive and Hagström is therefore persuaded that it might take some time before swarming can be adopted in the military. Other issues to take into account when thinking of flying objects are flight safety rules and policies (air space is not free) and last but not least, the complexity of testing. Stability and predictability are paramount in military applications and because a system acts within its own designed space, autonomy is to make that design space very large, so that it may include many potential events. But outside of (software-based) simulation, testing a system remains hard.
Georg Dietz works for German group IABG mbH and focuses on military airborne platforms. The expert explained that air operations today are increasingly complex for a number of different reasons: the sheer amount of players in the world, the fastest conflict dynamics, the speed of technological advances and information exchange, the rapid growth of sensor ranges and so on. Capabilities like platforms or systems can be insufficient while costs are high, with each new fighter aircraft, by instance, being at least twice as expensive as its predecessor. Future combat air systems will be designed as a system of systems (SoS) consisting of a variety of different components both manned and un-manned, enabling swarming operations. Design and control open up a series of questions though, as to the number and type of platforms needed, the degree of autonomy and technology gaps; on communication in highly contested areas; on human – machine interface and so on. Nevertheless, swarming represents a nearing future in air operations.
Jean-Marc Rickli from the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) expounded the concept that swarming is the 5th evolution of military strategy and together with autonomy, it represents a key characteristic of the battlefield of the future. Other strategies (or ways to use force) are ‘denial’ -whose main target is the military; punishment -which hits civilians and infrastructure to exert indirect pressure (terrorism features as punishment); risk -consisting in threatening an escalation, e.g. US-USSR Cold War; and decapitation -which relies on technology like drones to eliminate enemy leadership-. But a large number of small units with sensory capabilities, easy to manouver, able to act in coordination -such is the description of a functioning swarm- can concentrate firepower, speed, forces in a way previously unseen. Swarming tactics is a means to wage asymmetric wars and cyber manifestations of it have already been encountered. 3D-printing of gun components and drones will have important implications, explained the expert. In 2017 in Mosul several Iraqi soldiers were killed by drones operated by ISIS in what was the first instance of the West losing tactical aerial supremacy. Should swarming become a mainstream strategy, we should expect a more conflictual international environment, concluded Rickli.
Marco Detratti from the European Defence Agency (EDA) underlined how, according to estimates, the market for autonomous systems’ products and technology in non-military sectors will be in the order of €100Bn by 2025, with defence playing only a minor part. But swarms have disruptive potential in many fields and while defence is not yet impacted, it nevertheless expects to be in the future. In defence (non-offensive perspective) swarms can change and improve capabilities. Specifically, they can offer ubiquity, resilience and invisibility and are therefore taken into consideration in all tasks and for all domains: land, air, maritime and cyber. From swarms, the military expects cost reduction, decrease in manpower and risk, technical advantages. Since 2010, EDA has been trying to identify scenarios where swarm and multirobot systems could ‘deliver’; it started a series of projects accordingly. Despite technical evidence of feasibility and noteworthy research, problematics and challenges persist: Detratti went on to explain that there are no real autonomous systems in operation; systems are not resilient enough (consumption); they are not ‘smart’ enough; more progress is needed in testing the unpredictable (to be sure, for instance, that things continue to work when communication is interrupted, that information is not manipulated). There are also non-technical issues to take into account, like the need for a big shift in terms of military culture, doctrine and training; public perception; and ethics.
Autonomous (lethal) weapons have been raising ethical issues for years. George Woodhams gave a hindsight into the discussions and initiatives taking place at UN-level and within UNIDIR (UN Institute for Disarmament Research), which has been dealing with UAVs (un-manned aerial vehicles) since 2015. A specific concern regards the use of Reapers and Predators (drones). The Institute has been encouraging the international community to consider what new challenges may emerge from the proliferation of this technology and it also looks into strategic implications of un-manned systems. An issue for the UN to consider in the long term, is whether due to their low risk and cost of deployment, these systems might lead to problematic military practices. Woodhams went on to illustrate lines of debate within the frame of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, a UN-negotiating body designed to address weapons systems with implications on international humanitarian law. A Group of Government Experts to address Lethal Autonomous Weapons systems (LAWS) was established in 2014, with military advisors regularly invited in. It focuses on what is called ‘meaningful human control’ and its ethical foundations, like retaining human agency in decisions over the use of lethal force, preserving human dignity and ensuring human accountability. Talks can be difficult, as the 84 States which are involved in discussions have different military capabilities and levels of hindsight, but everybody seems to agree on the need to identify best practices and practical measures for improving compliance with international law. Though swarming has not been mentioned specifically over the last four years, concluded Woodhams, it’s the one area of autonomy that catches the imagination the most.
From all the implications derived from the concept of swarming, to the practical side of understanding the many ways in which it can take shape. There’s a flurry of exciting and ground-breaking research going on in laboratories, aimed at addressing limitations and constraints, with a view to developing a higher degree of autonomy and coordination.
We already mentioned how research takes ‘inspiration’, so to say, from nature. In introducing his line of work, Nicolas Bredeche from Pierre and Marie Curie University explained that methods used to study natural systems (like animal behaviour) can also be used to study artificial systems; and solutions for artificial systems are often a simplified version of what can be observed in nature. Bredeche oversees research on ‘adaptive mechanisms for collective decision-making in populations of simple individuals’ (such as insects or small animals). Simply put, he tries to understand the principles of collective behaviour, see how single members adapt to group strategies, and try and reproduce it in the lab in a way that is useful for artificial intelligence. With tigerfish and collective hunting as models, his studies reveal the importance of symbiotic behaviour and lead to conclude that a version of natural selection, with the ‘fittest’ individual winning over the rest of the population, can be transferred into robotics as well.
Dario Floreano from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne described how animals in a swarm use different types of sensors -like vision, magnetic compass for orientation, and noise; they can also make use of local information, unlike drones which rely on information from ‘vulnerable’ GPS. The question is: can we have swarms that, despite resorting to available technology like GPS, will also follow their own rules instead of being controlled by a computer on the ground? Floreano recalled how computer graphics’ rules for the animation of swarms with a certain degree of autonomy have already been laid down in the ‘80s by Craig Reynolds. Briefly put: when a drone is too close to the others, it will move far way (repulsion); when a drone is flying in a different direction with respect to the rest of the flock, it will tend to align to the others; when a drone is too distant, it will be attracted. But other variables like the ability to communicate, power capabilities (batteries), agility (quadcopters vs. fixed-wing drones) can greatly affect swarming and continue to be actively researched. Most importantly, one strand of Floreano’s research (commissioned by armasuisse and related to rescue drones’s ability to operate without GPS) has confirmed that sensor-based flight is possible and deserves attention.
Cooperation and teaming (human-robot-dog) in the field of rescue operations in rescue disaster areas is also a line of research at Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence (Lugano). Within this context, maintaining connectivity -either within the swarm and among drones and people- is crucial. Researcher Alessandro Giusti explained how another important strand of work focuses on interaction between humans and robots; specifically, it’s about exploring ways in which to exert control over a drone. The lab came up with the idea of pointing at it -an easy, quite natural gesture for people-; the technological options for implementing this solution are wearable interface like bracelets, laser pointers, or a smart watch, which make it possible to direct the robot to performing its task by moving one’s arm. Vision-based control is also being actively tested.
From human-robot interaction to situational awareness. This is the project Titus Cieslewski (University of Zurich) is involved in. The motivational question being: how can drones know where they are, in a hypothetical situation where there’s a team of agents in an unknown environment, they can’t see each other directly (unlike in classic swarms!) and the further they move in exploration, the harder it becomes to communicate? GPS, explained Cieslewski, does not work indoors, can be reflected in cities and is subject to jamming and spoofing in a military context (jamming and spoofing are part of electronic warfare and consist respectively in disrupting your enemy’s wireless communication and sending out wrong positioning). Computer vision can offer a way out, maintained the researcher; through the images captured by their cameras, drones can build ‘sparse visual maps’ resulting from processes like place recognition, pose estimation and optimisation. What Titus Cieslewski is currently bent on, is trying and reduce the amount of data exchanged in the process, which would translate into the possibility of enlarging the team of robots.
Get in touch with us!
We are in Lugano (Switzerland), Turin and Rome (Italy).
To call our headquarters in Lugano: +41(0)79 244 47 31
Our horizon START InSight’s activities deal with geopolitical issues. Our analysis and research are mainly concerned with the Mediterranean, the Arab and Islamic worlds, conflicts, European security and defence policies, the contexts of radicalisation and terrorism.
Dynamic, accessible, flexible and up-to-date
START InSight is a private company with a research team working in autonomy both in Italy and Switzerland.
Our light structure affords us to collaborate with third parties in different fields: we can carry out analysis and studies on request; we can take part in entrepreneurial projects; we can co-produce reportages, inquiries and documentaries; we can organise or supervise multilateral talks, events, and training days; we can launch and follow independent, exclusive and up-to-date research strands. Our perspective is international. We speak Italian, English and French.
Our method – research, journalism and entrepreneurship START InShight aims at widening the traditional approach to research, by matching academic methodology with the immediacy of journalistic inquiries and language; in other words, lawmakers’ and public opinion’s concerns can be taken into consideration with a view to ‘strenghtening’ analysis and its assumptions. Along this path, we wish to reason on different realities, opportunities and potentialities, and to contribute to the drafting of concrete projects (be it research-oriented or entrepreneurial) stemming from ideas. We consider such approach particularly useful in the field of security, terrorism and radicalisation issues, where a sound collaboration between the public and the private sphere is considered fundamental, and growing.
Network building START InSight designs to establish itself as a platform where experts and ideas converge to share and discuss joint research projects, multidisciplinary collaborations and the creation of international consortiums with a view to take part in national and EU-framed and funded initiatives within the field of security.
We can associate with and activate links with individual professionals, public and private institutions and companies.
The team. Our profiles.
Claudio Bertolotti, Phd
Executive Director, Head of Research Rome, Turin (Italy)
Claudio holds a PhD in Sociology and Political Science and a BA in Contemporary History. He also specialized in Sociology of Islam. His current research focuses on terrorism, jihadist radicalisation, contemporary small wars and asymmetric conflicts in the MENA area.
As Military Officer, he served as NATO Counter-intelligence analyst and Section Chief in Afghanistan. Since 2008, he has lectured Italian staff personnel in ‘History, Societies, Cultures and Conflicts of Contemporary Afghanistan’. Since 2015, he is Senior Researcher at the Centre Euromaghrébin de Recherches et d’Etudes Stratégiques (CEMRES) and Italian Representative within the ‘5+5 Defense Initiative’ research working group.Currently, he is Head of Research at START InSight, Senior Research Fellow and Research Coordinator at the Italian Military Centre for Strategic Studies (CeMiSS),researcher and lecturer at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and the Italian Society for International Organisation (SIOI), Subject Matter Expert at NATO, and a member of ITSTIME (Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues & Managing Emergencies).
As of 17th April, 2019 Executive Director of ReaCT – Observatory on Radicalisation and Counter-Terrorism.
Chiara Sulmoni, BA, MA President, Head of Editorial production
Lugano (Switzerland) email@example.com
Chiara holds a BA and an MA in Italian Studies from UCL (University College London) and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, London). She currently works as a journalist and (desk) producer with specific experience in realising and supervising longer reports/documentaries on subjects pertaining to current and foreign affairs, Arab and Islamic worlds, Afghanistan, Pakistan, conflicts. As a researcher and analyst, she is focussing on issues linked to radicalisation and terrorism.
As of 17th April, 2019 Co-Director of ReaCT – Observatory on Radicalisation and Counter-Terrorism.
Her work mainly features on RSI – Swiss Italian Radio and TV.
Work in progress
We are currently working on: European perspectives on Islamist radicalisation
The current threat and evolution of jihadist groups in the Sahel
by Marco Cochi
The war in the north of Mali has turned into a low-intensity asymmetric conflict while a new, dangerous insurgency has further developed along the Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso border
Instability and insecurity in the border regions of the Sahel are a long-standing phenomenon. They originate from a series of issues, namely the still uncertain consolidation of the security forces belonging to different states of the region; the porosity of borders; ethnic-driven territorial claims and the presence of active Islamist extremist groups. The crisis in this area worsened at the end of 2011 following the fall of Muammar al-Ghaddafi and resulted in a huge, illegal flow of weapons through the Sahel, which has fuelled insurrections and conflicts in the region.
A progression of events, which erupted in April 2012 under the leadership of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) and culminated in the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. A few months later, MNLA secured the support of three fearful jihadist groups: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), Ansar Eddine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Later, these jihadist movements came into conflict with MNLA due to strong disagreements between the Tuareg and Islamist radicals, after the latter succeeded in imposing their fundamentalist religious connotation over the armed uprising.
After taking over military operations, the extremists began invading Southern Mali up to the point of threatening its capital Bamako. In January 2013, the revolt spree prompted Operation Serval, which was conducted by a French-led multinational force in accordance to Security Council resolutions 2071 of 12th Octoberand 2085 of 20th December 2012.
This action prevented the former French colony from falling under an Islamist yoke and put an end to the jihadists’ offensive, but failed to eradicate the contagion of violent extremism from the area. With state authority restored in Northern Mali, as of 1st August 2014 Paris entrusted the fight against Sahelian jihadist groups to the Operation Barkhane, comprising Serval and Epervier.
Six and a half years later, the war in the north of Mali has turned into a low-intensity asymmetric conflict and a new, dangerous insurgency has further developed along the Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso border. Some jihadist groups, exploiting the insecurity that characterized it for decades, have made this area their stronghold.
JNIM was established in early March 2017 under the aegis of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to gather the main groups linked to al-Qaeda under a single umbrella organisation
One of the most dangerous and dynamic Islamist extremist formations in the area is Jama’ah Nusrah al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims – JNIM/GSIM). The JNIM was established in early March 2017, under the aegis of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to gather the main al-Qaida linked groups active in Mali and the Sahel desert areas under a single umbrella organisation. Specifically, the merger involved al-Murabitun, Ansar Eddine and its affiliates from the Macina Brigade, later renamed as Macina Liberation Front.
Al-Qaeda’s Sahelian cell is led by a prominent figure of the Malian jihadist network: Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghaly – nicknamed “the strategist” – who, besides leading Ansar Eddine during the war in the north of Mali, also fought in the ranks of Ghaddafi’s Islamist Legion and in Lebanon alongside PLO militants; in addition to negotiating the release of hostages for the Bamako government and being one of the main actors in the second Tuareg uprising between 1990 and 1995.
The alliance of the main Qaedist groups active throughout the region had been anticipated by some observers; a study carried out by the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) two months prior to the merger testifies to that, as it examines such possibility in detail.
Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel fostered the merger in response to the progressive strengthening of the Islamic State’s influence in the region
After all, AQMI leader Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel had long been pursuing the objective of binding together all militant groups in the Sahel to fulfill his ambitions of increasing AQMI’s then limited influence on the region. But the jihadist leader’s motivation also stemmed from the a need to formalize ties and relations between various armed formations, dating back to the occupation of Northern Mali. Furthermore, it is manifest that Droukdel fostered the merger in response to the progressive strengthening of the Islamic State’s influence in the region which, despite its territorial losses, still remains a pole of attraction for international jihadism.
In Italy, according to the 2018 Report penned by Associazione Antigone -which monitors detention conditions- cases have grown by 72%. Such trend demands attention and should lead on the one hand, to questioning the reasons why; on the other, to examining which initiatives could be put in place with a view to prevention.
This in-depth, radio report discusses the issue with Fra’ Ignazio De Francesco, a monk with the Piccola Famiglia dell’Annunziata whose pilot project within a detention facility in Bologna (Italy) has become a documentary called ‘Dustur’ (which means ‘constitution’ in Arabic). The core of this educational programme is a robust interaction with the Italian and some of North African constitutions. Such approach is particularly interesting as it lays bare conservative Muslims’ difficulties in accepting man-made laws.
The report also includes the testimony of Samad Bannaq, a young, former convict explaining the prison’s ecosystem which could lead to radicalisation; an interview with Valeria Collina, the mother of one of the London Bridge attackers of Italian-Moroccan origins, and the overall evaluation of the Italian case by Stefano Dambruoso, a well-known anti-terror magistrate and co-author of a draft law on countering violent extremism which also provides for a prevention plan, but remains to be adopted by the Senate.
Libya: the opportunities
The Libyan frailty
On August 26, in the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, violent clashes took place as consequence of an attack conducted by the militias of the Tarhuna Seventh Brigade (originally from a town 60 km south of Tripoli and linked to Salah Badi, former chief of Libya Dawn) against the militias loyal to the Government of national accord (Gna), in place since 2016, under Fayez al-Sarraj. Thanks to the UN mediation, the parties agreed to a truce on September 4, but the subsequent missiles attack on Tripoli airport on September 12 broke the truce and imposed the closure of the capital’s air traffic. In a month’s time, because of the hostilities 117 people died, 560 were injured and 5000 families were displaced.
This situation, while confirming the failure of the international negotiation process, significantly affected the internal political scene, characterized by chronic instability and very difficult to put back together. Despite international recognition and support, the Government of national accord is being de-legitimized by some very dynamic competitors, like militias, sub-national, local and tribal groups. It is weak, lacks the necessary monopoly of force and therefore is unable to impose its power beyond the sole Tripoli area.
The UN rejects the French early elections project
In mid-September, the UN Security Council (under rotational US presidency)made two important decisions: in the first place it adopted a resolution authorizing an extension into 2019 of UNSMIL mandate -the United Nations Support Mission in Libya is the UN body in charge of relations with Tripoli, under the responsibility of Lebanese national Mr. Ghassan Salamè. Secondly, due to persisting instability, the idea of holding presidential elections before the end of the year, put forward by France, was abandoned. This latter choice was in line with the Italian and US views.
The UN Security Council decision thus reinforced the key role of the UNSMIL mission, while it weakened Mr. Ghassan Salamè’s (apparently not very incisive) who is to be flanked by US national Ms. Stephanie Williams as Vice-representative for political affairs in Libya. On the other hand, Paris has not given up its plans.
Around the two competing fronts gather, in a peculiar collaboration-competition relationship, hundreds of groups, militias and brigades.
The overall situation pays the price of strong external interferences making a solution to the conflict unlikely in the mid-term. The Libyan government under Fayez al-Sarraj is busy maintaining a safe and secure environment in the Tripoli urban area, the Tobruk Parliament – loyal to General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar and with the support of France, Russia and Egypt – is promoting a constitutional referendum, urged by the French, with the aim of facilitating elections. Around the two competing fronts gather, in a peculiar relationship of collaboration on the one hand and competition on the other, hundreds of groups, militias and brigades who are busy imposing their own priorities on both Tripoli’s and Tobruk’s governments thanks to their respective territorial and social control, whose characteristics have been compared to the mafia’s. A thriving parallel economy based on international illegal trade in smuggled goods, consisting mainly in oil, drugs and weapons, as well as human beings, allows self-sustenance.
Within this scenario, signs are starting to emerge of an improved cooperation between Italy and the US. Washington could take a more direct involvement in Libya into consideration, while the US administration also views the 12-13 November international conference on Libya organized by Italy with favour. It is not to be excluded that the US will advance its own strategy for Libya with an eye to security. Should the strategy be designed in accordance with Stephanie Williams’s vision, resulting from her 24 years’ experience in the Middle East and North Africa, specifically in Libya where she previously held the position of «chargé d’affaires», it might include the creation of a selected military corps to also include Gadhafi’s special troops currently scattered among countless armed groups.
Syria: the Russian-Turkish competition
The Russian commitment in post-conflict reconstruction: Moscow will be in charge of reactivating roads, rebuilding strategic pipes and infrastructures.
Syria: Russia gets the upper hand over Turkey
On September 17, Russia and Turkey agreed on the institution of a demilitarized area in the Syrian region of Idlib, the last fortress of the about 60.000 members of the armed opposition groups and anti-government rebels including Jihadist and former Qaedist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
The demilitarized area is about 15-20 km wide. Inside the area, Russian, Turkish and NATO units will perform coordinated patrol activities; radical groups shall leave the area while rebel groups shall surrender heavy weapons to Syrian governmental forces. This agreement was the outcome of the Sochi meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish equivalent Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Apparently, this agreement managed to prevent a serious humanitarian crisis that could have affected about 3 million people, if the announced military offensive had actually taken place.
The terms of the Russian-Turkish agreement reinforce the idea that the Idlib campaign will follow the path traced for the previous campaigns, like the one for Daraa. This approach confirms the strategic vision of the Syrian regime and its allies, who systematically induced hesitant armed opposition groups to scatter on the territory, so that they could be fought without great effort and with limited collateral effects on the civilian population.
Ankara will have to maintain a sort of Turkish protectorate on rebel troops
The main advantage for Turkey is to avoid the concentration of Syrian governmental troops in that area. The downside is that Ankara will have to maintain a sort of Turkish protectorate on rebel troops in evident distress and, should the campaign against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other Jihadist groups be successful, Turkey will have the further burden of guaranteeing them a way out of Syria.
On the other hand, the agreement gives Russia and Syria the opportunity to secure the strategic line of communication that cuts across Idlib and connects the North of Syria to other cities. Transit along the Aleppo-Latakia and Aleppo-Hama motorways is expected to resume by the end of 2018. Russia also obtains another advantage from the agreement, in particular on the operational level. As its forces cannot keep fighting the Jihadist and other rebel groups, it is going to deploy its troops along with Turkish troops in the demilitarized area in order to reduce the presence and arsenals of those rebels which were until now supported by Ankara.
The US, in turn, stays out of the conflict and its solution. Similarly to what happened in the South (Daraa), US support to opposition groups in the province of Idlib seems to be limited to deterrence from the hypothetical use of chemical weapons, to which the US administration could nevertheless and in a limited, tactlcal manner respond. In brief, a merely symbolic help to the rebels that Ankara would like to keep supporting.
So the war in Syria essentially continues but with the Putin-Erdogan agreement the trend appears to consolidate Russians’ influence in the area, to the benefit of Damascus and Teheran.
Analysis, assessments and previsions
Russia wants a new security order in the Middle East. Whatever happens to the rebels in Idlib province, Russia is determined to keep Syria firmly inside its area of influence – both as its stronghold in the Middle East and to help contain the US and its allies.
the presence of 38 Russian companies at the Damascus International Fair, last September, proved that the economic and trade activities will be the main enablers of the Russian strategic influence
The contribution of the Russian armed forces was decisive in the fight against the opponents to Bashar al-Assad’s government and against the Islamic State, and it granted Moscow a more influential position compared to Western powers’. Russia was able to take the upper hand in diplomacy and international relations as well as on military ground, as the recent sales’ agreement for S-300 missile systems to Syria seems to confirm. The agreement is causing concern to another big regional player, Israel, who has long been carrying out bombing actions on Syrian territory with the aim of containing Iran and countering Lebanese Hezbollah.
The Russian role on the military front was paramount, but also its commitment in post-conflict reconstruction cannot be underestimated. Moscow will be in charge of reactivating roads, rebuilding strategic pipes and properties destroyed during these last seven years of war. The participation of 38 Russian companies to the Damascus International Fair, last September, proved that the economic and trade activities will be the main enablers of the Russian strategic influence in the Middle East.