Syria: Jihadi factions refuse to leave Idlib demilitarised zone

Russia and Turkey negotiated deal for buffer to avert bloody conflict in civilian-heavy area

A Syrian rebel fighter from the National Liberation Front. Photograph: Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images

A Syrian rebel fighter from the National Liberation Front. Photograph: Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images

 

The agreement reached by Russia and Turkey for the creation of a demilitarised buffer zone surrounding the Syrian province of Idlib appeared to falter when jihadi factions refused to withdraw their fighters by Monday’s deadline.

The al-Qaeda-linked group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham refused to pull out its fighters on time but hinted it could abide by the deal.

Tahrir al-Sham is the largest faction in Idlib and holds 60 per cent of the province, the last opposition bastion. Two-thirds of the designated buffer zone is controlled by the group, which has 10,000 fighters.

Non-jihadi groups, armed with medium and light weapons, can remain in the zone as long as they observe a ceasefire with Syrian army units deployed around Idlib.

The deal was challenged on Saturday when mortars were fired from the zone into neighbouring Aleppo and Hama provinces, killing two Syrian army soldiers. Since heavy weapons held by all factions were meant to pull out of the 15-20km wide zone by October 10th, these incidents are regarded by Damascus as serious violations of the agreement.

Nevertheless, Syria’s foreign minister Walid Muallem said the government was prepared to give Russia time to “judge whether the agreement was fulfilled nor not”. He said Syria would fight to regain Idlib if insurgents did not comply.

Humanitarian worries

Moscow and Ankara negotiated the deal to avert a Syrian army offensive that could kill hundreds of civilians and drive an estimated 800,000 into Turkey, northwest of Idlib. Nearly three million civilians live in Idlib and adjacent areas.

If the jihadis act as spoilers, Turkey could use its surrogate National Liberation Front, comprising diverse Syrian fighters, to drive them from the buffer zone, or Russia could give a green light to the Syrian army to mount its offensive to recapture Idlib. Both options would precipitate bloody conflict.

Moscow and its ally Damascus agree the buffer zone and the Idlib ceasefire are, ultimately, “temporary” measures.

Meanwhile, Damascus yesterday made three important gains in efforts to return Syria to normal life. The Syrian flag was raised over the crossing between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan, enabling 1,100 UN observers, including 127 Irish troops, to cross back and forth along this contested front as they carry on their mission.

Returning Syrians

The Nassib crossing on the Syrian-Jordanian border opened for the first time in three years, allowing Syrians to return to their country. A recent poll taken among Syrians in Jordan showed 18 per cent would opt for early repatriation, while the rest were hesitant. However, if returnees re-establish themselves, others could follow. Jordan hosts 1.3 million Syrian refugees, 631,000 registered with the UN.

Some 800 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon went home, swelling the number this year to 50,000, according to Lebanon’s security chief Maj Gen Abbas Ibrahim. He expects 100,000 of the 1.2 million refugees – 976,000 of whom are registered with the UN – to repatriate before the end of the year.

Last week Syrian president Bashar al-Assad proclaimed an amnesty for draft dodgers and army deserters to encourage the return of Syrian men who fled with their families to escape conscription or service on front lines.