North Syria buffer zone clear ahead of deadline

AFP
A planned buffer zone in northwest Syria has been cleared of heavy armaments ahead of time but Turkey faces a tougher task convincing jihadists to pull out.
AFP

A planned buffer zone in northwest Syria has been cleared of heavy armaments ahead of time but Turkey faces a tougher task convincing jihadists to pull out.

The demilitarized zone ringing the Idlib region is the result of a deal reached last month between Turkey and government ally Russia to stave off an assault on Syria’s last major rebel stronghold.

The accord called for a complete withdrawal of all heavy weapons from the planned buffer by Wednesday.

“No heavy weapons were seen in the buffer zone,” confirmed Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Despite the relatively speedy implementation of the accord’s first deadline, observers say a thornier task lies ahead.

Under the deal, the zone must be free by next Monday of all jihadists, including those of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the region’s dominant force led by former al-Qaida fighters.

Jihadist fighters remain

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had expressed confidence in Turkey’s ability to fulfil its side of the deal “because of its knowledge of factions” on the ground.

But Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security said HTS is playing the long game in Idlib.

“It is making the assessment that Turkey will allow it to continue to operate in northwest Syria, so long as it keeps a low profile,” he said.

In recent weeks, Turkey has dispatched convoys of troops to monitoring posts in the region and its soldiers are expected to patrol any future buffer zone.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have retaken large parts of Syria from opposition fighters and jihadists since Russia intervened in September 2015.

Despite progress in implementing the accord, Assad insisted it was a “temporary measure” and that Idlib would eventually return to state control.

Heras said that, with the buffer zone accord, Russia sought to hand over the burden of dealing with powerful jihadists to Turkey.

“The Russians want to freeze the war in western Syria and get on with the business of rebuilding Assad’s zone of control,” Heras said.

“Assad might want to reconquer Idlib, but for now he does not have a better option than this deal.”

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