(AFP) – The fate of an agreement between Russia and Turkey to set up a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib is in balance after Turkish-backed militants refuse to withdraw and oppose the deployment of Russian troops.
The deal, agreed last month between Ankara and Moscow, provides for the establishment of a U-shaped buffer zone around Idlib that would be free of both terrorists and heavy weapons.
But the so-called National Liberation Front, a Turkish-backed militant alliance in Idlib, told Agence France-Presse late Sunday that it had raised objections to the deal after meeting with Turkish mentors.
“A long meeting was held with our Turkish ally regarding the elements of the agreement, and chiefly the issue of Russia’s presence in the buffer area,” it quoted NLF spokesman Naji Mustafa as saying.
“We discussed the issue, and the NLF took a clear position rejecting this matter,” he said, adding that Turkey “pledged that it would not happen”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an accord with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on September 17, under which all militants in the planned buffer area must hand over their heavy weapons and terrorist groups must withdraw.
On Sunday, the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an NLF faction known as Faylaq al-Sham had begun pulling out its heavy weapons from the planned zone but both groups denied it.
“There have been no changes in the location of weapons or redistribution of fighters, even as we remain committed to the agreement reached in Sochi,” Failaq al-Sham’s media officer Sayf al-Raad told AFP.
Most of the territory where the buffer would be set up is held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Takfiri alliance also known as al-Qaeda in Syria. The terrorist group’s chief Abu Mohammad al-Jolani has previously warned that weapons were a “red line”.
Hurras al-Deen, a smaller al-Qaeda-linked group, has also rejected the agreement and on Saturday, US-backed Jaish al-Izza terrorist group followed suit, saying it rejected the Turkish deal with Russia.
Under the Idlib agreement, Turkey and Russia would carry out coordinated military patrols on the borders of the buffer zone in a bid to detect and prevent “provocation by third parties”.
Jaish al-Izza terrorists clashed with government forces throughout the night Saturday and into Sunday in Hama Province, bordering Idlib.
The London-based observatory also reported clashes between militants and government forces in the coastal province of Latakia on Sunday.
Over the past few months, Syrian forces have made sweeping gains against Takfiri elements, especially in the country’s southern areas and Damascus suburbs.
The Syrian army is now preparing to rid Idlib from terrorist groups, prompting Turkey to hammer out a rushed deal with Russia in order to protect militants under its support.