Syrian fighters 'to remove heavy weapons from buffer zone within days'

A Turkey-backed umbrella group for Syrian rebels started implementing the deal reached to demilitarize in the northern Idlib province. (AFP)
Updated 07 October 2018
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Syrian fighters 'to remove heavy weapons from buffer zone within days'

  • The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the withdrawal of weapons had already started a week ago
  • Under the deal, all rebels in the demilitarised zone, which surrounds Idlib and also parts of the adjacent provinces of Aleppo and Hama

AL-EIS: Turkish-backed fighters said Sunday they expected to finish withdrawing heavy weapons from a planned buffer zone in northwestern Syria within days under a deal to stave off a regime attack.
The National Liberation Front (NLF) announced Saturday that it has begun withdrawing heavy arms from the zone as part of an agreement between Syrian regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.
The accord, reached on September 17, aims to stave off a massive regime assault on Idlib province, the last major rebel bastion in Syria, by creating a 15 to 20-kilometre (9-12 mile) buffer zone ringing the area.
Under the deal, all rebels in the demilitarised zone, which surrounds Idlib and also parts of the adjacent provinces of Aleppo and Hama, must withdraw heavy arms by Wednesday, and radical groups must leave by October 15.
"We began to withdraw our heavy weapons from the demilitarised zone to rear positions," NLF spokesman Naji Mustafa told AFP.
"The operation will last several days," he said, adding that the weapons will be held by fighters deployed in positions outside the demilitarised zone.
The NLF is the main Turkey-backed rebel alliance in the Idlib region, but jihadist heavyweight Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) holds a large part of the province and the zone.
HTS, led by former Al-Qaeda fighters, has yet to announce its stance on the buffer zone deal.
On Sunday, an AFP correspondent saw NLF fighters on the frontline inside the planned buffer zone on the Idlib region's eastern flank.
They waited in trenches armed with light weapons on a hill in the area of Al-Eis in Aleppo province, overlooking regime-held territaory several kilometres (miles) away.
The correspondent did not see any heavy weapons in Al-Eis.
"According to the set deadline, the withdrawal of heavy weapons will end on October 10. The operation is ongoing," an NLF commander on site told AFP.
"We are reinforcing our positions and are ready to face any violation" from the regime side, he added.
In recent weeks, Turkey has deployed troops at "observation posts" it set up in rebel-held areas of Idlib and neighbouring Aleppo.
Nawar Oliver, an analyst from the Turkey-based Omran Centre for Strategic Studies, said pro-Ankara fighters giving up their heavy weapons on the front line leaves them vulnerable to a regime attack.
But "the Turkish military should have some kind of heavy artillery" with them, he said.
On Saturday, a media spokesman for Faylaq al-Sham, one of the NLF factions, confirmed the withdrawal of arms.
Seif Raad said it included pulling back missile launchers, tanks and mortars.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the withdrawal of weapons had already started a week ago and would continue for several more days.
"But the rebels only hold a third of the buffer zone," the head of the Britain-based monitor, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.
HTS and other jihadists, who control around 70 percent of the planned demilitarised area, pose the main challenge to its implementation, he said.
None have accepted the Russia-Turkey deal, yet they are expected to withdraw from the zone by Oct. 15.


Turkey: EU sanctions over gas drilling ‘worthless’

Updated 16 July 2019
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Turkey: EU sanctions over gas drilling ‘worthless’

  • EU foreign ministers said they are suspending talks with Turkey over air transport agreement
  • They backed EU’s proposal to decrease financial assistance to Turkey

ANKARA: Turkey on Tuesday rejected as “worthless” an initial set of sanctions approved by the European Union against Ankara, and vowed to send a new vessel to the eastern Mediterranean to reinforce its efforts to drill for hydrocarbons off the island of Cyprus.
EU foreign ministers on Monday approved sanctions against Turkey over its drilling for gas in waters where EU member Cyprus has exclusive economic rights. They said they were suspending talks on an air transport agreement, as well as high-level Turkey-EU dialogues, and would call on the European Investment Bank to review its lending to the country.
They also backed a proposal by the EU’s executive branch to reduce financial assistance to Turkey for next year. The ministers warned that additional “targeted measures” were being worked on to penalize Turkey, which started negotiations to join the EU in 2005.
Speaking at a news conference in Macedonia, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the sanctions aimed to “appease” Cyprus and were of “no importance.”
“The EU needs us concerning the migration issue or other issues,” he said. “They will come to us and hold contacts; there is no escaping that.”
“They know that the decisions they took cannot be applied,” he said. “They were forced to take the worthless decisions under pressure from the Greek Cypriots and Greece.”
Cavusoglu added: “If you take such decisions against Turkey, we will increase our activities. We have three ships in the eastern Mediterranean, will with send a fourth.”
Earlier, the Turkish Foreign Ministry criticized the EU for ignoring the rights of Turkish Cypriots and accused the 28-nation bloc of “prejudice and bias.”
It added that Turkey was determined to protect its rights and the rights of Turkish Cypriots.
Two Turkish vessels escorted by warships are drilling for gas on either end of ethnically divided Cyprus. A third Turkish exploration ship is also in the area. Turkey insists that it has rights over certain offshore zones and that Turkish Cypriots have rights over others.
Cyprus was split along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence is recognized only by Turkey, which keeps more than 35,000 troops in the breakaway north. Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but only the internationally recognized south enjoys full membership benefits.
Cypriot officials accuse Turkey of using the minority Turkish Cypriots in order to pursue its goal of exerting control over the eastern Mediterranean region.
The Cypriot government says it will take legal action against any oil and gas companies supporting Turkish vessels in any repeat attempt to drill for gas. Cyprus has already issued around 20 international arrest warrants against three international companies assisting one of the two Turkish vessels now drilling 68 kilometers off the island’s west coast.