Insurgents meet weapons withdrawl deadline in Idlib

Date set by Russia and Turkey aiming to impose lasting ceasefire in Syrian province

Syrian rebel-fighters from the National Liberation Front (NLF) secure a tank, part of heavy weapons and equipment withdrawn from a planned buffer zone around Idlib Photograph: Omar Haj Kadolur/AFP/Getty

Syrian rebel-fighters from the National Liberation Front (NLF) secure a tank, part of heavy weapons and equipment withdrawn from a planned buffer zone around Idlib Photograph: Omar Haj Kadolur/AFP/Getty

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Insurgents and jihadis have met Wednesday’s deadline for withdrawing heavy weapons from a buffer zone surrounding Syria’s northwestern Idlib province but remain deployed on the front line opposite the Syrian army and supporting forces.

The date for the removal of tanks, artillery pieces and mortars was set by Russia and Turkey, which aim to impose a lasting ceasefire on the province and avert an all-out Syrian army offensive against the anti-government forces’ last bastion.

Under a deal reached between Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition, and Russia, an ally of the government, a 15-20km-wide demilitarised zone is to ring Idlib and adjacent pockets of territory in Hama and Aleppo provinces. Once the buffer zone is enforced, Turkish troops and Russian military police will mount patrols to prevent breaches.

Turkey’s surrogate National Liberation Front agreed to comply and completed the withdrawal of arms on Monday. Al-Qaeda’s Haya’at Tahrir al-Sham and affiliated jihadi factions did not declare their intentions or admit they had pulled out heavy weapons. However, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported jihadi “heavy weapons have been removed from northern Hama [province] and eastern Idlib”, areas located in the buffer zone.

Tahrir al-Sham seeks to avoid clashes with thousands of Turkish troops and Syrian surrogates deployed within and around Idlib. Two small hardline extremist factions, Hurras al-Din and Ansar al-Din, have, however, called the deal a “great conspiracy” and could act as spoilers.

Terror group deadline

The next deadline comes on October 15th when, according to a memorandum of understanding reached by Moscow and Ankara, “radical terrorist groups”, notably Tahrir al-Sham and allied factions, will be compelled to exit the buffer zone, which comprises one-third of Idlib and includes strategic hills and highlands.

This deadline could be a deal breaker. Tahrir al-Sham, with an estimated 10,000 fighters, controls 60 per cent of Idlib and could resist withdrawal from the buffer zone for as long as Turkish-allied insurgents remain.

Although they have other major shared interests, Turkey and Russia could clash over Idlib. Having erected 12 observation posts in and around the province, Turkey has transformed them into fortified bases for indefinite occupation.

Russia argues the demilitarisation deal is transitional, that Turkey must pull out and Idlib must revert to government control by the end of 2018. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has said the arrangement is a “temporary measure” meant to avoid a Syrian army offensive and a potential bloodbath. He has repeatedly insisted Idlib must revert to state control.

Assad is in no position to accept the loss of Idlib. There is deep and abiding Syrian resentment against Turkey’s 1938 seizure of the neighbouring Ottoman province of Alexandretta and expulsion of its majority Arab and Armenian inhabitants. Among the refugees were members of Assad’s own Alawite community.

Following the exodus, the French mandatory power ruled Turks were the majority and handed over the province to Turkey which formally annexed it in 1939.

Separately, Assad has announced an amnesty for army deserters and draft dodgers, a move designed to encourage internally displaced people to sign up and refugees to return home. Those in Syria have four months to apply and those abroad have six months.

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