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Hundreds of Syrians protest signs of Damascus-Ankara thaw

Demonstrators raise Syrian opposition flags and placards as they rally against a potential rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian regime
— Al-Bab (Syria) (AFP)

Hundreds of Syrians in the rebel-held north protested Friday against signs of a thaw between Ankara and Damascus after their defence ministers met in Moscow for the first time since 2011.

Several hundred demonstrators gathered in Al-Bab, a town controlled by rebel factions long backed by Ankara, brandishing banners reading: "The revolution is an idea, you can't kill an idea," an AFP photographer reported.

"We will not reconcile, we cannot reconcile, we don't want to reconcile," said Sohbi Khabiyeh, one of the demonstrators who had been displaced from the suburbs of Damascus.

The 54-year-old described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a "criminal".

"We will never reconcile with the Assad regime," he added. "Don't help Assad against us, stand with us."

The demonstration comes after the Syrian, Turkish and Russian defence ministers met in Moscow on Wednesday for the first time since the Syrian conflict broke out over a decade ago.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Turkish and Syrian counterparts, Hulusi Akar and Ali Mahmoud Abbas, discussed "ways to resolve the Syrian crisis, the problem of refugees and joint efforts to combat extremist groups in Syria", Moscow said.

The meeting was just the latest sign of a thaw in relations between Damascus and Ankara -- the key backer of opposition forces in war-torn Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in recent years repeatedly called Assad an "assassin", spoke in November of a "possible" meeting with his Syrian counterpart.

Nearly half a million people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which has forced around half of the country's pre-war population from their homes.

Similar protests were held in other rebel-held districts of Aleppo province, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In the northwestern city of Idlib, controlled by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), dozens raised slogans hostile to Erdogan.

"I came to protest to express my rejection of the statements calling for a rapprochement with the criminal Assad regime which has displaced everyone," said demonstrator Salwa Abdel Rahman.

"Even if the whole world were to agree to reconcile with the criminal regime, we would not reconcile," she added.

Turkey recently intensified its strikes on Kurdish positions in northeastern Syria, threatening to launch a ground offensive in areas controlled by the Kurds.

Ankara views the US-backed Kurds in Syria as heavily linked to Kurdish "terrorists" back home, particularly the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said it viewed Wednesday's meeting in Moscow "with suspicion" and called on Syrians to "confront this alliance".