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Syria buffer to go ahead despite missed deadline

Updated October 17, 2018

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In this file photo a man uses dirt to put out a fire at the scene of a reported air strike in the district of Jisr al-Shughur in the Idlib province in  September. — AFP
In this file photo a man uses dirt to put out a fire at the scene of a reported air strike in the district of Jisr al-Shughur in the Idlib province in September. — AFP

BEIRUT: Russia and Tur­key said on Tuesday their de­al to set up a buffer zone for the last major Syrian reb­el bastion of Idlib was still on course, despite jihadists mis­sing a deadline to withdraw.

The agreement, reached by key powerbrokers Mos­cow and Ankara last month, gave “radical fighters” until Monday to leave a horseshoe-shaped area around Idlib intended to separate government from opposition forces.

But jihadists have held their ground, with a monitoring group saying on Tuesday there were still “no signs” of an evacuation.

Neither Turkey nor Russia seemed fazed by the apparent breach of the plan aimed at averting an assault by Moscow-backed Syrian regime troops.

“The memorandum is being implemented and the military are satisfied with the way the Turkish side is working in this regard,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.

Soon after, Turkish For­e­i­­gn Minister Mevlut Cavu­so­glu said the process of implementation was “ongoing”.

“There are no concerns about the withdrawal of heavy arms, and there don’t seem to be concerns about certain radical groups withdrawing from this region,” he said.

The deal provides for a 15-20km buffer zone semi-circling opposition-held areas in Idlib and provinces of Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo.

It gave until Oct 10 for the zone to be cleared of any heavy weapons, a deadline opposition backer Turkey, the Observatory, and rebels said had been met.

Under the deal, the jihadists’ departure would pave the way for patrols of the zone by its Russian and Turkey sponsors.

World powers and aid agencies had expressed relief after the buffer zone deal, hoping it would help stave off a military assault that could have caused a humanitarian catastrophe.

Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New Ame­rican Security, said Ankara needed to do more to make the deal succeed.

“The Turks for their part have shown no action to remove any of the jihadist groups from either Idlib or the demilitarised zone, which rightfully calls into question whether Tur­key is willing remove the Al Qaeda safe haven in Syria,” he said.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2018