Militants and Turkish-backed rebels in Syria’s last major opposition stronghold have withdrawn heavy weapons from nearly all of a planned buffer zone, a monitor said yesterday, a day ahead of deadline.
The pullback is the first major test of a deal brokered by government ally Russia and Turkey last month to avoid what the United Nations warned would be the appalling humanitarian consequences of a major government offensive.
Under the agreement, all factions have until today to withdraw heavy weaponry from the 15- to 20-kilometre wide buffer zone, which rings Idlib province and adjacent areas of the northwest.
And by Monday, the buffer zone must be free of all militants, including those of the region’s dominant armed group, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance led by Al Qaeda’s former Syria branch.
Analysts had expected Ankara to have a difficult time enforcing the September 17 deal but by yesterday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the heavy weapons pullout was nearly complete.
“Rebel and militant factions have withdrawn their heavy arms from most positions inside the planned buffer zone except for the northern Latakia countryside,” the head of the Britain-based monitor said.
“We did not observe any movement of heavy weapons outside that area. They could have been moved to trenches or secret locations,” Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The Idlib region consists of a large part of the province of the same name, as well as adjacent rebel or militant-held areas of the Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.
Yesterday, an AFP correspondent saw tanks and artillery guns that pro-Ankara rebels had withdrawn from the buffer zone some 20 kilometres away.
They moved the armoured vehicles into pits surrounded by mounds of earth, and wrapped up artillery guns for protection.
HTS and smaller militant factions quietly began withdrawing their heavy arms on Saturday in an operation that continued through Monday night, the Observatory said.
The pro-Ankara National Liberation Front said it had completed its weapons pullback on Monday.
HTS, which controls more than two-thirds of the buffer zone around Idlib along with other militants, has not given any formal response to the September 17 truce deal.
But by beginning to pull out its weapons, the group was “de facto” implementing it, Abdel Rahman said.
“No faction, rebel or militant, would be able to withstand the consequences of any escalation if the deal’s terms were not met,” Abdel Rahman said.
A source close to HTS said it had come under pressure to fall in line to avoid further hardship for the rebel zone’s 3mn residents, many of whom have fled previous bloody government offensives on other parts of Syria.
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