BEIRUT: Militants and Turkish-backed opposition in Syria’s last major opposition stronghold have withdrawn most of their heavy weapons from a planned buffer zone ahead of a Wednesday deadline, a monitor said.
The pullback is the first major test of a deal brokered by regime ally Russia and opposition-backer Turkey last month to avoid what the UN warned would be the appalling humanitarian consequences of a major regime offensive.
Under the agreement, all factions have until Wednesday to withdraw heavy weaponry from the 15- to 20-km wide buffer zone, which rings Idlib province and adjacent areas of the northwest.
And by Monday, the buffer zone must be free of all militants, including those of the region’s dominant armed group, the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria branch.
Analysts had expected Ankara to have a difficult time enforcing the Sept. 17 deal but by Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the heavy weapons pullout was near complete.
“The buffer zone is now almost empty of any heavy weapons on the eve of the expiry of the deadline,” the Britain-based monitor’s chief, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.
HTS and smaller militant factions quietly began withdrawing their heavy arms on Saturday in an operation that continued through Monday night, the Observatory said.
The pro-Ankara National Liberation Front said it had completed its weapons pullback on Monday.
HTS, which controls more than two-thirds of the buffer zone around Idlib along with other militants, has not given any formal response to the Sept. 17 truce deal.
But by beginning to pull out its weapons, the group was implementing it “de facto,” Abdel Rahman said.
“No faction, rebel or jihadist, would be able to withstand the consequences of any escalation if the deal’s terms were not met,” Abdel Rahman said.
A source close to HTS told AFP it had come under irresistible pressure to fall in line to avoid further hardship for the opposition-controlled zone’s 3 million residents, many of whom have fled previous bloody regime offensives on other parts of Syria.
“Everybody has been forced to agree to the initiative, though reluctantly, so that people can enjoy a bit of security and safety after long years of suffering from the savagery of the regime and its allies,” the source said.
The source said HTS was satisfied that the presence of the Turkish troops, whose numbers have been increased in recent weeks, would prevent any Russian-backed regime offensive.
Under the terms of the deal, the buffer zone is to be patrolled by Turkish troops and Russian military police.
But the opposition groups objected to Moscow’s presence in the zone and said they received Turkish guarantees that Russian patrols had been dropped.
For the zone to come into effect, “radical groups” — interpreted as meaning HTS and other militants — must also leave the area by next Monday.
It is still not clear whether the militants will comply with this second deadline.
Nawar Oliver, an analyst from the Turkey-based Omran Centre for Strategic Studies, said he thought HTS would comply with the deal even if it did not publicly announce its support.
“It’ll still have a presence in Idlib and is not handing over any weapons or fighters, but is handing over the (buffer) zone to a neutral side, Turkey, and to the NLF,” he told AFP.
Forces loyal to Bashar Assad have retaken swathes of territory in Syria since Russia intervened in September 2015.
A series of offensives earlier this year saw a succession of long-time opposition strongholds surrender. A similar Russia-backed assault had been expected in Idlib before the deal was announced last month.
Despite progress in implementing the Idlib deal, Assad insisted on Sunday that the arrangement would not become permanent.
In comments reported by state news agency SANA, he said the accord was a “temporary measure” and Idlib would eventually return to regime control.
The civil war has killed more than 360,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests.