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Will Idlib buffer zone agreement see the light?

The second item of the Turkish-Russian agreement on Syria’s Idlib providing for the withdrawal of jihadist organizations from the heavily demilitarized buffer zone is facing serious obstacles.

ALEPPO, Syria — Syrian regime artillery shelled the Jarjinaz village in Idlib’s eastern countryside Nov. 2, killing eight civilians. The regime forces targeted Jarjinaz with more than 50 shells during the Friday prayers.

Turkey and Russia had concluded an agreement on Sept. 17 to establish a buffer zone between the armed opposition regions and the regime-controlled areas in Idlib. According to this agreement that entered into force Oct. 15, this zone would run 15 to 20 kilometers deep and would be free of heavy weapons, including artilleries, tanks and rocket launchers.

Yet Syrian regime forces and allied militias continue to shell armed opposition areas with cannons and rifles in Idlib province, Hama’s northern countryside, Aleppo’s western countryside and Turkmen Mountain in the Latakia countryside.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) responded by targeting regime locations in east Idlib Nov. 2.

The Turkish-Russian agreement also calls for a halt of military operations and shelling across Idlib, Hama’s northern countryside, Aleppo’s western countryside and the Turkmen Mountain in Latakia countryside. But the opposition accuses regime forces and their allied militias of continuing to breach the agreement.

Mostafa Bakkour, a military leader in Al-Aza Army — which is an affiliate of the FSA — told Al-Monitor, “The regime’s violations are almost daily, and the shelling is ongoing on towns and villages in the opposition-held territories using missiles and tanks. The regime militias are trying to foil the agreement.”

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces condemned the shelling on Jarjinaz despite the Russian-Turkish agreement to halt the aggression.

In a statement the coalition published on its official website Nov. 2, it said, “The regime forces’ shelling of Idlib is a crime and a blatant violation of the Security Council resolutions, the International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention, which incriminates targeting civilians. The attacks are a serious violation of the buffer zone agreement in Idlib.”

The coalition underlined in its statement the importance of the Idlib agreement and stressed the need to respect it and protect it from the regime’s attempts to violate and foil it. The coalition also blamed Russia for the repeated shelling on the areas included in the agreement.

Naji Mustafa, who is based in Idlib and is the spokesperson for the FSA-affiliated National Liberation Front, told Al-Monitor, “The regime’s militias did not stop targeting our areas in Idlib and the opposition-held surroundings. They carry out daily shelling with heavy artillery and machine guns, and they try to obstruct efforts to maintain the truce and implement the buffer zone agreement. FSA factions are responding by firing machine guns because heavy weapons were removed from the 15- to 20-kilometer-deep buffer zone under the Russian-Turkish agreement.”

Mustafa added, “The FSA’s heavy weapons were removed before the scheduled time on Oct. 15. All FSA positions remained in place in Idlib’s surroundings [in the 15- to 20-kilometer-deep buffer zone]. We only removed the heavy weapons like mortars, tanks, missiles and artilleries.”

In a press conference Oct. 31, spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense Igor Konashenkov said that the Idlib agreement to establish a buffer zone is being implemented. He indicated that “a total of 2,450 militants and 206 pieces of military equipment … have been removed from the demilitarized zone.”

Konashenkov added that the delay in establishing a buffer zone that was supposed to be implemented Oct. 15 is due to Turkey’s failure to comply “with all of its liabilities.” But, he added, “Turkey has taken considerable efforts to this end.”

Under the Russian-Turkish Idlib buffer zone agreement, Turkey has to keep militant groups away from the demilitarized zone. This still has not happened. Turkey is exerting huge efforts to convince these groups to leave the area. The main militant groups that have to retreat from the buffer zone include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Guardians of Religion Organization, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda.

But these militants have yet to retreat. On Oct. 31, militants toured the buffer zone in Latakia’s northern countryside for the first time since the agreement was signed. These included Abu Malek al-Talli, one of HTS' leaders, and Chechen militants. The tour seemed to be an act of defiance of Turkey, which wanted them to withdraw as soon as possible.

The HTS attacked a regime position Nov. 1 and killed 10 regime fighters in the buffer zone near the town of Abu al-Dhour in east Idlib. On Oct. 27, the HTS conducted high-level military maneuvers in the south of Idlib, after the buffer zone was established. An elite force affiliated with the HTS carried out the maneuvers, and militants used both heavy and light weapons.

An opposition military source in Idlib told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity for security reasons, “If the militant groups do not retreat from the demilitarized zone completely in the next two weeks, the FSA factions and the Turkish army will have no choice but to fight them and force them to leave to ensure the implementation of the Russian-Turkish agreement provisions.”

The source added, “The provision of the agreement requiring the retreat of militant groups from the demilitarized area in Idlib is hard to implement quickly. If they insist on staying, the repercussions will be dire. The FSA factions might wage a battle against them that will not be easy. The FSA and the Turkish government are still hoping these groups will retreat peacefully. Dismantling them will be done at a later stage.”

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