BEIRUT (AP) – Both Syria’s government and its opposition welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal declaring a de-militarized zone around the major rebel stronghold Idlib, saying Tuesday the agreement stemmed more bloodshed.
Still, the government vowed it will keep up its campaign against “terrorism,” either militarily or with reconciliation deals.
Syria’s armed opposition said the Idlib arrangement is a victory for its resistance and will improve its standing after crushing military defeats in recent months elsewhere in the country.
FILE – In this file photo posted on the Twitter page of Syria’s al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front on April 25, 2015, which is consistent with AP reporting, shows Nusra Front fighters in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, Idlib province, Syria. As the decisive battle for Idlib looms, a motley crew of tens of thousands of Syrian opposition fighters, including some of the world’s most radical, are digging their heels_ looking for ways to salvage what is possible of an armed rebellion that at one point in the seven-year conflict controlled more than half of the country. (Al-Nusra Front Twitter page via AP, File)
“It will revive the revolutionary spirit,” said Alaa Moadamani, a fighter who moved from the Damascus suburb of Daraya in 2016 and has settled in Idlib after an evacuation deal.
Idlib is home to 3 million residents and around 60,000 fighters, including some of the world’s most radical. Some estimates put the number of radical fighters at about 10,000 who are in control of nearly 70 percent of the enclave. The deal aims to end their presence in Idlib.
Some of the militants called supporters of the deal “traitors,” warning that it is likely to end with indiscriminate violence.
Such divergent views presaged the challenges that lie ahead in implementing the first-of-its-kind deal. Already, details coming out of Damascus and Ankara appeared to differ, raising concerns about how it would be implemented.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the demilitarized zone is to be established by Oct. 15 and be 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) deep to separate Syrian forces and the rebels, with radical groups withdrawn from the area. The zone will have troops from Russia and NATO-member Turkey conducting coordinated patrols to monitor the demilitarization and restore traffic to the highway linking major Syrian cities that passes through Idlib.
The opposition fighters are to give up their heavy weapons, mortars and tanks by Oct. 10, Putin said.
Idlib is the last rebel-held corner of Syria, although foreign troops and local proxies remain in areas adjacent to Idlib and the country’s east.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said the agreement came after consultation between Damascus and Moscow, which has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad since 2015, turning the tide of the civil war his forces were struggling to win. It said the agreement reached in Sochi, Russia, is bound by a timetable that must be respected, calling it a continuation of previous de-escalation zones.
Russia, Turkey and Iran have declared four de-escalation zones around Syria since last year, all of them but Idlib ended in a military offensive and deals in which the rebels surrendered. Those who refused to accept government authority were bussed to Idlib, whose population has doubled.
A pro-Syrian government newspaper, Al-Watan, reported Tuesday that the agreement envisions three stages ending with the government’s authority restored in Idlib.
After the demilitarized zone is set up and the rebels lay down their arms, the paper reported, a third stage will see government institutions return to Idlib after insurgents withdraw from residential areas.
In declaring the agreement Monday, the Russian and Turkish leaders didn’t mention restoring the Syrian government’s authority in Idlib. Such a proposition threatens to undermine the agreement, which was put in place in the absence of a political solution.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday the arrangement ensures the continuity of Syria’s moderate opposition. He said it would allow civilians and Turkey-backed anti-government rebels to remain in the demilitarized zone and “retain light arms.”
Without the agreement, “there would have been no opposition left,” Cavusoglu said, calling it crucial for a lasting political solution.
Cavusoglu also said Turkey would need to dispatch more troops to patrol the area, along with Russia, while retaining its 12 observation posts.
Idlib is home to some of the government’s staunchest opponents, including civilians and insurgents. Insurgent groups include al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – or Levant Liberation Committee – the Turkistan Islamic Party and Horas al-Din, or Guardians of Religion.
Speaking against the deal, some in Idlib said they feared it would pave the way for a massive attack. The Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham-affiliated Ibaa news agency compared the deal to the 1993 U.N. agreement in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica that ended two years later with the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys and the displacement of thousands of women at the hands of attacking Serbian fighters.
The agency also said the deal was a “follow-up” to previous “de-escalation” agreements which resulted in opposition areas “being handed over” to the government.
Abu Yaqzan al-Masri, a religious judge affiliated with HTS, said the coming days will be “full of surprises” and warned against the rebels giving up their weapons. He said some will attempt to spark infighting to rid the area of jihadists and help the Turkey-Russia deal. An HTS spokesman said the judge’s view doesn’t represent the political position of the group.
Al-Masri, in a statement posted on social media, called such trouble makers “traitors and agents.”
“Those who ask you to give up your weapons should be the first to fight,” he said.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul and Fadi Tawil in Beirut contributed to this report.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, welcomes Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prior to their talks at the Bocharovy Ruchei residence, in Sochi, Russia, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. The leaders of Russia and Turkey agreed Monday to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)