Rebels of the National Liberation Front in Idlib Province in northwest Syria
Russia has accepted the continued presence of rebels in the demilitarized zone in opposition-held Idlib Province in northwest Syria.
On September 17, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed a 15 to 20-km (9 to 12.5-mile) wide zone around Idlib and northern Hama Province, suspending an imminent Russian-regime offensive to overrun the last major opposition area in the country.
The agreement said “radical” groups had to leave the zone by October 15. However, it was left unclear to which — if any — rebel factions this applied. The Turkish-supported National Liberation Front said that it would remove heavy weapons, as Turkey brought in its arms to monitor the zone, but that its fighters would remain.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday, “According to the information we are receiving from our military, the memorandum is being implemented and the military are satisfied with the way the Turkish side is working.”
Peskov’s statement also appeared to accept the presence of the jihadist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls part of Idlib, even though Moscow has held that HTS should withdraw under the terms. The jihadists indicated on Sunday that they would not depart.
“Of course one cannot expect everything to go smoothly with absolutely no glitches, but the work is being carried out,” Peskov said.
Last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publicly supported the Assad regime’s insistence that the Idlib zone is “temporary”, as Bashar al-Assad continues to maintain that he will regain control of “every inch” of Syria.
But the Russians seem to be putting a priority on their relationship with Turkey, whose forces moved into northwest Syria alongside rebels from August 2016, in an offensive to push out the Islamic State and then early this year to take much of the Kurdish canton of Afrin.
After eight months on the verge of confrontation, following Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane, Erdoğan and Putin agreed arrangements for cooperation in August 2016, just before the Turkish intervention and amid the Russian-regime siege and offensive to reoccupy east Aleppo city.