Syrian rebels have completed the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline of the last opposition-held province of Idlib, Turkish state media reported on Monday, October 8.
Citing their correspondent in Idlib, state-run news agency Anadolu said the withdrawal was concluded under a deal reached last month between Turkey and Russia.
Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces as well as anti-regime armed groups pulled out heavy weapons, including rocket launchers, mortars and medium-range missiles, Anadolu added.
On Sunday, Turkish-backed rebels said they expected to finish withdrawing heavy weapons from the planned buffer zone in northwestern Syria within days.
The Russia-Turkey agreement reached on September 17 for the northwestern region of Idlib on the Turkish border was made in part to avert what many warned could be one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria’s seven-year conflict.
The Idlib region includes most of the province of the same name, as well as adjacent parts of Hama and Aleppo provinces.
#Map of the Idlib Demilitarised Zone (as agreed upon on Sept 21st), along with Jihadist (HTS/TIP) territorial control, key strategic highways and various counties' observation posts.
— Nathan Ruser (@Nrg8000) October 2, 2018
Last month’s agreement is to create a 15 to 20-km (9-12 mile) demilitarized area ringing the Idlib region.
Under the deal, all rebels in the buffer zone must withdraw heavy arms by Wednesday, and radical groups must leave by October 15.
The Turkey-backed National Liberation Front announced on Saturday that it had begun withdrawing heavy arms from the zone as part of the agreement.
“We began to withdraw our heavy weapons from the demilitarized zone to rear positions,” NLF spokesperson 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 demilitarized zone.
Anadolu Agency: "Within the framework of the #Sochi agreement between #Turkey and #Russia, withdrawal of heavy weapons in the disarmament process in line Idlib Tension Reduction Zone has been completed." pic.twitter.com/1EzNHscqIH
— EHA News (@eha_news) October 8, 2018
The NLF is the main Turkey-backed rebel alliance in the Idlib region, but al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham holds a large part of the province and the zone, and has yet to announce its stance on the buffer zone deal.
HTS and other jihadists, who control a significant portion of the planned demilitarized area, may pose the main challenge to its implementation.
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 territory several kilometres 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.
On Saturday, a media spokesperson 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.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Sunday the deal for the country’s last major opposition bastion was just a “temporary measure” before the government retook the region.
“The agreement is a temporary measure through which the state has realised many achievements on the ground starting with stemming the bloodshed,” state news agency SANA reported Assad as saying.
Idlib “and other Syrian territory still under terrorist control will return to the Syrian state,” he reportedly said at a meeting of the central committee of his Baath party, using his usual term for anti-government forces.
In recent weeks, Turkey has deployed troops at observation posts it set up in rebel-held areas of Idlib and neighboring 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.
With reporting from AFP