Civilians in Syria's Idlib welcome truce, hoping it holds

The Free Syrian Army and civilians in rebel-held Idlib province are grateful for a reprieve from the regime offensive.

al-monitor Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a news conference following their talks, Sochi, Russia, Sept. 17, 2018. Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS.

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turkish-syrian border, russia’s syria policy, syrian regime, free syrian army, hayat tahrir al-sham, idlib, buffer zone, turkish-russian relations

Sep 27, 2018

ALEPPO, Syria — Many residents of Idlib province are breathing a sigh of relief as others are holding their breath now that Russia and Turkey have reached an agreement that has stopped, or at least delayed, a humanitarian crisis.

The Turkish-Russian agreement to establish a buffer zone between Syrian regime forces and armed opposition groups in Idlib province received broad acclaim among residents of Idlib, northwest Aleppo province and northwest Hama province, all of which are controlled by the armed opposition.

Idlib province is home to 3 million civilians, many of whom sought refuge there after being displaced from various cities by the seven-year-long Syrian civil war. They need protection now that the remaining opposition and extremist groups have been relocated there, making Idlib the largest opposition-held area. Civilians believe the agreement signed Sept. 17 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could help their area avoid the scourge that the regime and its allies were preparing.

On Sept. 18, thousands of civilians took to the streets of Idlib’s towns — such as Binnish, Ftireh and Maar Shurin — expressing their gratitude for the agreement. Others wonder, however, how long the deal will hold.

The demilitarized buffer zone is to measure 15-20 kilometers (9 to 12 miles) wide between the opposition and regime forces by Oct. 15. The pact also calls for strengthening the Turkish army's observation points in the area and dismantling extremist groups and ensuring Russia's commitment not to attack Idlib. The deal asserts the unity of Syrian territory and stipulates that all extremist armed groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), will evacuate the zone. The moderate opposition factions can remain, but are to withdraw all of their heavy weapons and tanks.

Media activist Jaber Owayed told Al-Monitor that people in the area mainly are relieved. "Many were concerned about their fate before the agreement was signed. Residents wondered where they would go, whether they would be killed by Russian or Syrian warplanes, whether their families would survive, whether they would find tents to take refuge in or whether they would sleep out in the open,” he said.

He added, “None of these concerns matter now that the agreement was signed. Idlib and its surrounding opposition-controlled areas escaped a disastrous invasion.”

Owayed noted, “The people here in Idlib — around northwest Aleppo and northwest Hama — are very grateful for Turkey’s positive role. They believe the Turkish government is their only savior at a time when all countries of the world have left them as easy prey for the regime and Russia. Civilians in the area fear Russia and the regime would cheat them and threaten to carry out an invasion after all if the agreement is not implemented.”

Many people worry they can't trust Russia and the regime to honor the deal, and that the extremist groups could throw a wrench into the works.

Factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a Turkish ally, expressed their satisfaction with the agreement. The National Liberation Front (NLF), which includes a large number of FSA factions in Idlib, issued a Sept. 21 statement affirming the agreement is a victory for Turkish diplomacy and stated its readiness to cooperate. However, the statement noted that the FSA factions will remain vigilant to any treachery by the regime, the Russians and the Iranians, especially as those parties said the agreement is temporary. The NLF further stressed that it will not allow these parties to exploit the agreement for their benefit.

"[Russia] hasn't respected previous agreements and it has committed massacres and war crimes and forced many of our people into displacement," NLF spokesman Capt. Nafi Mustafa told Al-Monitor. “Turkey is making great efforts to prevent an invasion of Idlib by the regime. The popular demonstrations in Idlib are proof of how much our people are holding on to their revolution and demands. We in the NLF want to tell our people and the world that we will hand over neither our weapons, nor our land, nor our revolution. Blood was shed in order for our revolution to achieve its goals and we will achieve them by ousting the regime and granting freedom and dignity to our people.”

The major obstacles to the implementation of the Turkish-Russian agreement in Idlib are the extremist factions affiliated with al-Qaeda. In the past few days, a number of HTS leaders have said they reject the agreement. The Islamist Guardians of Religion Organization also rejects the deal, noting that it is at odds with all agreements and conferences regarding Idlib. The group considers the pact a major conspiracy.

A lawyer from Idlib who goes by the name Ammar Hussein, hiding his identity for security reasons, told Al-Monitor, “Jihadist groups will try to stop the agreement from being implemented. However, they will fail since millions of civilians — along with FSA factions — support the agreement. The few thousand who form these groups will have little to say when it comes to the tens of thousands of FSA fighters whom Turkey will support should they decide to fight them on this.”

Hussein added, “It is still unclear how the groups rejecting the agreement will be handled, but the Turkish army is sending backup to the Syrian borders and strengthening checkpoints in Idlib. FSA factions and civilians will cooperate to put pressure on the jihadist groups and may use force should the latter refuse to withdraw from the buffer zone.”

One can't help but wonder whether the regime and its allies can truly commit to implementing the agreement, on which the FSA and millions of Syrians in opposition-held areas are basing their hopes. It's possible this could all be a ruse and an attempt to gain time, and the people of Idlib could once again be disappointed.

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