UPDATE 1430 GMT: The Foreign Minister of Iran, the essential ally alongside Russia of the Assad regime, has welcomed the Russian-Turkish agreement — while trying to claim some of the credit:
Intensive responsible diplomacy over the last few weeks-pursued in my visits to Ankara & Damascus, followed by the Iran-Russia-Turkey Summit in Tehran and the meeting is Sochi-is succeeding to avert war in #Idlib with a firm commitment to fight extremist terror. Diplomacy works.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 18, 2018
UPDATE 1230 GMT: Trying to save face, the Assad regime says it welcomes the Russian-Turkish agreement which has suspended plans for an offensive in northwest Syria.
Until Monday’s announcement by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the regime had maintained its call for the reoccupation of Idlib and northern Hama Provinces.
But a Foreign Ministry official has claimed to State news agency SANA that the Putin-Erdoğan announcement for a demilitarized zone was the “outcome of intensive consultations between it and the Russian Federation with complete coordination between the two countries”.
Hedging over the suspension of the offensive, the official repeated that regime’s line that it will eventally regain control of “each inch” of Syrian territory, with “determination to go ahead in its war against terrorism until all the Syrian territories are liberated whether by military operations or by local reconciliations”.
He also pointed to a capacity to break the agreement at any time, as it is “time-bound”.
The Syrian opposition and rebels celebrated the agreement.
Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army official, said the deal “buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria”.
The spokesman for the Syrian Negotiations Commission, Yahya al-Aridi, expressed hope that the Russian-regime offensive was permanently cancelled: “[This is a] victory for the will for life over the will for death”.
Russia and Turkey have announced an agreement over northwest Syria, suspending a Russian-Assad regime offensive and declaring a 15-20 km (9-12.5 mile) buffer zone between opposition- and regime-held areas.
Monday’s statement follows a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The agreement says the jihadist bloc of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham will leave the demilitarized zone, to be patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces.
However, there is a lack of clarity on other key details. It is not clear which rebel factions will have to depart. The lines of the zone are also still to be confirmed, although Turkey has produced a map which it says represents the agreement.
For weeks, Russia had tried to establish a pretext for a Russian-regime offensive on Idlib and northern Hama Provinces, with an estimated 3 million people. To break a “de-escalation zone” — declared by Russia, Turkey, and Iran last year — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the “festering abscess” of “militants” must be removed.
But Ankara has stood in the way. Its military forces intervened in the area alongside rebels from August 2016, initially to push out the Islamic State and then to take most of the Kurdish canton of Afrin.
On two occasions last month, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu rejected pressure by Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. Two weeks ago, Erdoğan maintained its line at a summit with Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, asserting, “A regime assault would also create serious humanitarian and security risks for Turkey, the rest of Europe and beyond.”
The UN has estimated that up to 800,000 people in Idlib — many of them already displaced from other areas of Syria — could flee an offensive. The movement would put further pressure on Turkey, which hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees and closed its border in 2016.
The Demilitarized Zone
Putin told a joint news conference alongside Erdoğan: “We agreed that by October 15, [we will] create along the contact line between the armed opposition and government troops a demilitarized zone of a depth of 15-20 km, with the withdrawal from there of radically-minded rebels, including al-Nusra.”
The faction Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra before it formally revoked allegiance to Al Qa’eda in July 2016 — is part of the jihadist HTS. It has been listed as a “terrorist” organization by Western states, as well as being used by Russia as the pretext to attack civilian and rebel sites and enable pro-Assad offensives.
By October 10, at the suggestion of the Turkish President, [we agreed] on the withdrawal from that zone of the heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars of all opposition groups.
The demilitarized zone will be monitored by mobile patrol groups of Turkish units and units of Russian military police.
While HTS controls part of Idlib Province, after pushing back rebel factions in 2017, other areas are held by the National Front for Liberation, a rebel coalition backed by Ankara.
Erdoğan focused on the humanitarian priority, while pointing to Turkey’s goal of weakening and eventually dismantling HTS.
With this agreement we have precluded experiencing a large humanitarian crisis in Idlib.
“The opposition will continue to remain in the areas where they are. In return, we will ensure that the radical groups, which we will determine with Russia, will not operate in the area under discussion.
He also firmly drew the line against any resurrection of a Russian-regime offensive: “Russia will surely take necessary precautions to ensure the Idlib de-escalation zone is not attacked. Together we will ensure the detection and the prevention of provocation by third parties and violations of the agreement.”
Asked by a journalist whether it was true that Russia planned no more military operations in Idlib, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said, “Yes”.
Russian State media have responded by sharply switching their headline tone. RT — having promoted the offensive by denouncing the opposition and rebels for weeks and by spreading disinformation about a “false flag” chemical attack — announces, “Putin & Erdogan agree Idlib buffer zone to avert new Syria crisis”.