Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan have agreed to create a demilitarized buffer zone in Syria's Idlib province. The zone will be patrolled by Turkish and Russian soldiers to keep Syrian government troops and rebel forces apart.
Russia, the biggest outside backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against rebels, has been preparing for an offensive on the city of Idlib, which is controlled by rebels and now home to about 3 million people. But after Putin’s talks with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has opposed a military operation against the rebels in Idlib, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters there would not now be an offensive.
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 told a joint news conference with Erdogan: “We agreed that by Oct. 15 (we will) create along the contact line between the armed opposition and government troops a demilitarized zone of a depth of 15-20 km, with the withdrawal from there of radically-minded rebels, including al-Nusra.” “By Oct. 10, at the suggestion of the Turkish president, (we agreed) on the withdrawal from that zone of the heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars of all opposition groups,” Putin said, with Erdogan standing alongside him.
The demilitarized zone will be monitored by mobile patrol groups of Turkish units and units of Russian military police
“The demilitarized zone will be monitored by mobile patrol groups of Turkish units and units of Russian military police.”
Neither Putin not Erdogan explained how they planned to differentiate “radically-minded” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.
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 Qaeda 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”.
“With this agreement we have precluded experiencing a large humanitarian crisis in Idlib,” Erdogan told reporters at the news conference with Putin.
“The opposition will continue to remain in the areas where they are. In return, we will ensure that the radical groups, which we will determine with Russia, will not operate in the area under discussion,” he said. “Russia will surely take necessary precautions to ensure the Idlib de-escalation zone is not attacked. Together we will ensure the detection and the prevention of provocation by third parties and violations of the agreement.”
Ahead of the trip to Russia, Erdogan had said Turkey’s calls for a ceasefire in Idlib region were bearing fruit after days of relative calm but that more work needed to be done. Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, speaking earlier on Monday, said the Assad government was determined to drive the Nusra Front, which he described as a terrorist organization, from Idlib.