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article imageUN gives cautious backing to Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib

By Carole LANDRY (AFP)     Sep 18, 2018 in World

The United Nations on Tuesday cautiously backed a Turkish-Russian deal to create a buffer zone in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province that put off the threat of an imminent onslaught.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the deal reached between the Russian and Turkish presidents and called on all warring sides to implement it.

He said the agreement to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib "should avert a full-scale military operation and provide reprieve for millions of civilians," a UN statement said.

The United Nations had warned that an all-out assault on the province where three million people live would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe and possibly one of the worst bloodbaths of Syria's seven-year war.

In an appeal delivered last week, Guterres had warned that a full-scale battle in Idlib would "unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict."

UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura also welcomed the agreement, telling a Security Council meeting that "we have seen crisis in Idlib averted".

De Mistura said the de-escalation could open the door to holding talks on a new post-war constitution for Syria that could begin work in Geneva in the coming weeks.

"We are determined to do all that we can to give it a chance," he told reporters after the meeting.

- A temporary measure? -

UN aid chief Mark Lowcock sounded a more cautious note, noting that the deal was not open-ended and could simply postpone military action.

"Is this merely a stay of execution? Or is it the beginning of a reprieve, the first tiny glint of light at the very end of the darkest tunnel?" he asked.

Civilians in Idlib want to know if this is a temporary arrangement or the first step toward completely removing the threat of military action, said Lowcock.

Syria and Russia have been preparing military action in Idlib to bring the province under the control of Damascus, but Turkey, which supports some of the armed groups, had called for a ceasefire.

During a meeting Monday in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached the deal on establishing the buffer zone.

A 15-20 kilometer (9-12 mile) wide corridor will be established by October 15 from which all jihadist fighters must withdraw, paving the way for Turkish and Russian patrols of the area, according to the agreement.

The deal was reached a week before world leaders are to gather at the United Nations for meetings on Syria and on a string of other conflicts raging across the globe.

De Mistura suggested that the Idlib deal would provide some space for diplomats to try to advance efforts to end the war, which has killed more than 360,000 people.

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