- Russia and Turkey have agreed to establish a buffer zone in Syria’s Idlib province that could prevent a bloody battle between government forces and rebel groups.
- Under the deal, Russian and Turkish troops would jointly patrol the zone while rebel forces withdraw heavy weapons.
- The deal does not address a long-term political solution to the Syrian civil war, but it delays a large-scale offensive in Idlib that would likely turn into a humanitarian disaster.
Russia and Turkey have agreed to establish a buffer zone in Syria’s Idlib province that could stave off a catastrophic battle between Syrian forces and insurgent groups in the rebel-held region.
The demilitarized zone will be between nine and 15 miles wide and will go into effect by Oct. 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday after meeting with a Turkish delegation in Sochi.
Under the agreement, which has received cautious support from the Syrian government, Russian and Turkish troops will jointly patrol the zone, keeping Syrian forces and rebel fighters at arm’s length. Russia is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most important ally, while Turkey backs the rebels.
If the deal holds, it could prevent what the U.N. says will be a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. The province is now home to about 3 million civilians, more than half of whom have already been displaced by fighting elsewhere. (RELATED: Trump Gives Stark Warning To Russia, Syria — Dangles Threat Of Another Strike)
There are also an estimated 70,000 rebel fighters in Idlib, many of them hard-core Islamic militants who say they will fight to the end. Assad has likewise vowed to destroy the jihadi groups in a bid to reassert control over the province.
Leading up to Monday’s deal, Syrian forces backed by Russia and Iran had been laying the groundwork for a final offensive against the Idlib rebels. But the agreement means there will be no such assault, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“We will prevent a humanitarian tragedy which could happen as a result of military action,” Erdogan said Monday, according to the BBC.
Russia’s terms for the deal require rebel forces to withdraw all heavy weapons — including tanks, mortars and rocket launchers — out of the buffer zone by Oct. 10. All “radically minded rebels” such as fighters with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group, must also leave the buffer area by that date, Putin said.
It was not immediately clear if the agreement includes Idlib city. Al-Watan, a pro-Syrian government newspaper, said Tuesday that the buffer zone will cover Idlib city and a 10-mile wide circle around it. The paper also said Syrian government would re-establish state institutions in Idlib by the end of the year after rebel groups move away from civilian areas, Reuters reported.
The U.S. and its Western allies have warned Assad and Russia against following through with a large-scale offensive in Idlib. Earlier in September, President Donald Trump and senior national security officials reiterated a red line for retaliation if Assad’s forces attack civilian areas with chemical weapons, as they have done on previous occasions. (RELATED: Trump’s Syria Envoy Confirms US Commitment To Another Open-Ended War In The Middle East)
Even so, Washington’s ability to shape events on the ground in Idlib is limited. The 2,000 U.S. troops deployed to Syria are confined to the eastern half of the country, and using them to intervene in Idlib would risk a direct military confrontation with both Russia and Iran.
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