Amman/Beirut – Syrian opposition officials praised a deal between Russia and Turkey over Idlib province on Tuesday, saying it had spared the rebel-held region a bloody regime offensive and would thwart President Bashar Al Assad’s aim of recovering all Syria.
Damascus, while welcoming the agreement unveiled on Monday, vowed to press on with its campaign to recover “every inch” of the country. Its ambassador to Lebanon said the deal would test Turkey’s ability to deliver on promises to disarm rebels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Al Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan agreed at a summit on Monday to create a demilitarised zone in Idlib from which “radical” rebels must withdraw by the middle of next month.
The agreement has diminished the prospects of a Syrian regime offensive which the United Nations warned would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the Idlib region, home to about three million people.
The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represents the Syrian opposition’s last big foothold in Syria, where Iranian and Russian military support has helped Al Assad recover most of the areas once held by the insurgency.
But strong Turkish opposition to an Idlib attack has obstructed regime plans for an offensive, and the agreement announced on Monday appears to preserve a role for Turkey in the northwest – something seen as anathema to Al Assad.
“The Idlib deal preserves lives of civilians and their direct targeting by the regime. It buries Al Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria,” Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army (FSA) official, told Reuters.
“This area will remain in the hands of the Free Syrian Army and will force the regime and its supporters to start a serious political process that leads to a real transition that ends Al Assad’s rule,” Sejari said.
The spokesman for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission said the deal had halted an offensive for which regime forces had been mobilising in recent weeks, calling it a “victory for the will for life over the will for death”.
The “scenario of attack is practically excluded, at least for a period of time that is not small, and we hope that it will be permanent,” Yahya Al Aridi told Reuters by telephone.
The regime’s ambassador to Lebanon, in an interview with Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV, reiterated his regime’s distrust of Turkey, a major backer of the Syrian rebellion which has deployed troops across the opposition-held northwest.
“I see it as a test of the extent of Turkey’s ability to commit to implementing this decision. They are under pressure now and I believe they will try,” Ali Abdul Karim said.
“We do not trust Turkey … but it’s useful for Turkey to be able to carry out this fight to rid these groups from their weapons…Turkey could deal with this responsibility and this would be useful,” he said.
The demilitarised zone will be monitored by Russian and Turkish forces, the leaders said on Monday.
Neither Putin not Erdogan explained how they planned to differentiate “radically-minded” rebels from other anti-Al Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.
Putin said the decision was to establish by October 15 a demilitarised area 15-20 km deep along the contact line between rebel and regime fighters, with radical militants to be withdrawn from the area, including members of the Nusra Front, which is now part of the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham organisation.
Al Watan, a pro-Syrian regime newspaper, said on Tuesday the zone would stretch for 15km around Idlib city.
It also said Syrian regime institutions would return to Idlib by the end of the year in the final phase of the deal after insurgents hand over all of their heavy weapons and move away from civilian areas.
Citing unidentified diplomatic sources in Moscow, it said any factions rejecting the agreement would be considered enemies “even of the Turkish army and will be classed as terrorists that must be fought”.
Erdogan, who had feared another cross-border exodus of Syrian refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey, said the deal would allow opposition supporters to stay where they were and avert a humanitarian crisis.
Putin said that by Oct. 10, all opposition heavy weapons, mortars, tanks, rocket systems would be removed from the demilitarised zone, and said this was Erdogan’s suggestion.
Earlier this month, Putin publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdogan for a ceasefire when the two met along with Iran’s president for a summit in Tehran.
Idlib is held by an array of rebels. The most powerful is Tahrir Al Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the former Nusra Front – an Al Qaida affiliate until 2016.
Other Islamists, and groups fighting as the Free Syrian Army banner, are now gathered with Turkish backing under the banner of the “National Front for Liberation”.