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