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Syria buffer going ahead despite missed deadline


BEIRUT: A day after the militants missed a deadline under a demilitarisation deal for Syria’s Idlib, key powerbroker Russia said the deal was still going ahead.

The agreement, reached by rebel backer Turkey and ally Moscow, gave “radical fighters” until Monday to leave a horseshoe-shaped buffer around the last major opposition stronghold in the war-ravaged country.

But they have held their ground, and terror heavyweight Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) pledged to continue fighting — despite not taking an explicit position on the deal.

By Tuesday, more than 24 hours after the deadline, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said there were “no signs” of an HTS evacuation. Under the deal, the militants’ departure would pave the way for patrols of the zone by its Russian and Turkey sponsors.

“We did not monitor on Tuesday any withdrawal or patrols in the buffer area,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

The Kremlin however said on Tuesday the deal was being implemented despite some setbacks.

“The memorandum is being implemented and the military are satisfied with the way the Turkish side is working in this regard,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists at a regular briefing.

“Of course one cannot expect everything to go smoothly with absolutely no glitches, but the work is being carried out.” There was no reaction from Ankara, which observers said was a sign of a de facto grace period to allow the deal to be fully implemented.

Clearing the buffer of HTS and more extreme groups — including Hurras al-Deen and Ansar al-Islam — was seen as the real test of the September 17 accord.

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

It gave until October 10 for the zone to be cleared of any heavy weapons, a deadline Turkey, the Observatory, and rebels said had been met. HTS and other hardliners, which together hold over two-thirds of the planned buffer, also appeared to have quietly met the first target date and pulled heavy arms out of the zone. But publicly, HTS has stayed vague on the deal. The group, dominated by Al Qaeda’s former Syrian branch, pledged this weekend it would not stop fighting or give up its weapons, and insisted Russia should not be trusted.

On Tuesday, pro-government daily Al Watan said HTS’s refusal to withdraw “gave Ankara a powerful slap.” “It puts the agreement on the edge of the abyss and provides the justification for the Syrian army and Russian air force to start a military operation to oust (HTS) from the area,” it wrote.

It said Ankara had asked “Moscow to give it more time to influence” HTS members who were resisting the deal.

That came a day after Syria’s top diplomat said it was too soon to say whether the deal had been fulfilled.

“We have to wait for the Russian reaction. Russia is monitoring and following the situation,” foreign minister Walid Muallem told reporters in Damascus.

But he said Idlib would inevitably return to government control, implying a military assault was still on the table. — AFP

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