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article imageMoscow, Ankara say Syria buffer going ahead despite missed deadline

By Layal Abou Rahal (AFP)     Oct 16, 2018 in World

Russia and Turkey said Tuesday their deal to set up a buffer zone for the last major Syrian rebel bastion of Idlib was still on course, despite jihadists missing a deadline to withdraw.

The agreement, reached by key powerbrokers Moscow and Ankara last month, gave "radical fighters" until Monday to leave a horseshoe-shaped area around Idlib intended to separate government from opposition forces.

But jihadists have held their ground, with a monitoring group saying Tuesday there were still "no signs" of an evacuation.

Neither Turkey nor Russia seemed fazed by the apparent breach of the plan aimed at averting an assault by Moscow-backed Syrian regime troops.

"The memorandum is being implemented and the military are satisfied with the way the Turkish side is working in this regard," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.

"Of course one cannot expect everything to go smoothly with absolutely no glitches, but the work is being carried out."

Soon after, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the process of implementation was "ongoing."

"There are no concerns about the withdrawal of heavy arms, and there don't seem to be concerns about certain radical groups withdrawing from this region," he said.

The deal provides for a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone semi-circling opposition-held areas in Idlib and the neighbouring provinces of Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo.

It gave until October 10 for the zone to be cleared of any heavy weapons, a deadline opposition backer Turkey, the Observatory, and rebels said had been met.

But the second deadline for the withdrawal of "radical" fighters -- taken to mean jihadist heavyweight Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other hardliners -- was seen as the accord's real test.

- 'Give it more time' -

Under the deal, the jihadists' departure would pave the way for patrols of the zone by its Russian and Turkey sponsors.

"We did not monitor on Tuesday any withdrawal or patrols in the buffer area," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A Syrian fighter from a Turkish-backed rebel coalition stares at a damaged street in al-Rashidin  we...
A Syrian fighter from a Turkish-backed rebel coalition stares at a damaged street in al-Rashidin, western Aleppo province, close to Idlib province and part of the country's last major opposition stronghold, on October 15, 2018
Aaref WATAD, AFP

HTS, dominated by Al-Qaeda's former Syrian branch, has publicly pledged to continue fighting but has not taken an explicit stance on the Turkey-Russia deal.

On Tuesday, pro-government daily Al-Watan said HTS's refusal to withdraw "gave Ankara a powerful slap."

"It puts the agreement on the edge of the abyss and provides the justification for the Syrian army and Russian air force to start a military operation to oust (HTS) from the area," it wrote.

It said Ankara had asked "Moscow to give it more time to influence" HTS members who were resisting the deal.

That came a day after Syria's top diplomat said it was too soon to say whether the deal had been fulfilled.

"We have to wait for the Russian reaction. Russia is monitoring and following the situation," foreign minister Walid Muallem told reporters in Damascus.

But he said Idlib would inevitably return to government control, implying a military assault was still on the table.

"We have to wait, but at the same time, our troops are still ready around Idlib," Muallem said.

After a string of battlefield wins this year, troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad hold around two-thirds of Syria.

- 'No action' -

The Idlib region, home to around three million people, is the country's last major opposition bastion, and had been in Assad's sights for months.

World powers and aid agencies had expressed relief after the buffer zone deal, hoping it would help stave off a military assault that could have caused a humanitarian catastrophe.

Nawar Oliver, an analyst at the Turkey-based Omran Center, said the deal may still reach fruition.

"Although the time frame has nominally expired, there are continuing efforts to implement the deal," he told AFP.

Oliver said all stakeholders in the deal, even local actors, realised that the time frame granted in the public agreement would not be enough.

Idlib  the last rebel stronghold in Syria
Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria
Sophie RAMIS, AFP

"That's why it needs more time," he said.

One possible hurdle is the internal divide within HTS over the deal.

According to a brief this month by the Omran Center, HTS chief Abu Mohammad al-Jolani appears supportive of the deal and of aligning with the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front, the second most powerful group in Idlib.

A second faction, led by an Egyptian commander, was leaning towards rejecting the deal and any partnership with the NLF.

The terms of the accord only mention "radical fighters", without specifying HTS, and give no details on monitoring mechanisms, besides Turkish and Russian patrols.

Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said Ankara needed to do more to make the deal succeed.

"The Turks for their part have shown no action to remove any of the jihadist groups from either Idlib or the demilitarised zone, which rightfully calls into question whether Turkey is willing remove the al-Qaeda safe haven in Syria," he said.

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