Moscow says Syria buffer going ahead despite missed deadline
A day after jihadists missed a deadline under a demilitarisation deal for Syria's Idlib, key powerbroker Russia said the deal was still going ahead.
The agreement, reached by rebel backer Turkey and regime ally Moscow, gave "radical fighters" until Monday to leave a horseshoe-shaped buffer around the last major opposition stronghold in the war-ravaged country.
But they have held their ground and jihadist heavyweight Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) pledged to continue fighting – despite not taking an explicit position on the deal. By Tuesday, more than 24 hours after the deadline, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said there were "no signs" of an HTS evacuation.
Under the deal, the jihadists' departure would pave the way for patrols of the zone by its Russian and Turkey sponsors.
"We did not monitor on Tuesday any withdrawal or patrols in the buffer area," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
The Kremlin however said on Tuesday that the deal was being implemented despite some setbacks.
"The memorandum is being implemented and the military are satisfied with the way the Turkish side is working in this regard," presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists at a regular briefing. "Of course one cannot expect everything to go smoothly with absolutely no glitches, but the work is being carried out."
There was no reaction from Ankara, which observers said was a sign of a de facto grace period to allow the deal to be fully implemented.
Clearing the buffer of HTS and more extreme jihadists – including Hurras al-Deen and Ansar al-Islam – was seen as the real test of the September 17 accord.
The deal provides for a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone semi-circling opposition-held areas in Idlib and the neighbouring provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.
It gave until 10 October for the zone to be cleared of any heavy weapons, a deadline Turkey, the Observatory and rebels said had been met.
HTS and other hardliners, which together hold over two-thirds of the planned buffer, also appeared to have quietly met the first target date and pulled heavy arms out of the zone. But publicly, HTS has stayed vague on the deal.
The group, dominated by al-Qaida's former Syrian branch, pledged this weekend it would not stop fighting or give up its weapons and insisted Russia should not be trusted.
On Tuesday, pro-government daily Al-Watan said HTS's refusal to withdraw "gave Ankara a powerful slap."
"It puts the agreement on the edge of the abyss and provides the justification for the Syrian army and Russian air force to start a military operation to oust (HTS) from the area," it wrote. It said Ankara had asked "Moscow to give it more time to influence" HTS members who were resisting the deal.
That came a day after Syria's top diplomat said it was too soon to say whether the deal had been fulfilled.
"We have to wait for the Russian reaction. Russia is monitoring and following the situation," foreign minister Walid Muallem told reporters in Damascus.
But he said Idlib would inevitably return to government control, implying a military assault was still on the table.
"We have to wait, but at the same time, our troops are still ready around Idlib," Muallem said.
After a string of battlefield wins this year, troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad hold around two-thirds of Syria. The Idlib region, home to around three million people, is the country's last major opposition bastion and had been in Assad's sights for months.
World powers and aid agencies had expressed relief after the buffer zone deal, hoping it would help avert a military assault that could have caused a humanitarian catastrophe.
Nawar Oliver, an analyst at the Turkey-based Omran Centre, said the deal may still reach fruition.
"Although the time frame has nominally expired, there are continuing efforts to implement the deal," he told journalists.
Oliver said all stakeholders in the deal, even local actors, realised that the timeframe granted in the public agreement would not be enough.
"That's why it needs more time," he said.
One possible hurdle is the internal divide within HTS over the deal.
According to a brief this month by the Omran Centre, HTS chief Abu Mohammad al-Jolani appears supportive of the deal and of aligning with the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front, the second-most-powerful group in Idlib.
A second faction, led by an Egyptian commander, was leaning towards rejecting the deal and any partnership with the NLF.
The terms of the accord only mention "radical fighters", without specifying HTS and give no details on monitoring mechanisms, besides Turkish and Russian patrols. (AFP)