Rebel confusion as Idlib deadline nears

BEIRUT: With a deadline for establishing a demilitarised zone around Syria’s Idlib inching closer, confusion and apprehension is rife among Turkish-backed rebels who fear it will cost them their last stronghold.
Two weeks ago, Syrian ally Moscow agreed with Ankara to create a buffer area ringing Idlib in a bid to avert a massive government blitz on the northwestern opposition bastion.
Most rebels cautiously welcomed the deal, but the last two days have seen many factions raise objections over several of the accord’s key points and demand clarifications from Turkey. Those concerns came to a head at the weekend, with a major Turkish-backed rebel alliance denying reports it had begun implementing the agreement and rejecting any future Russian presence in the planned zone.
“There’s still disagreement and debate over the explanation of some points,” said Naji Mustafa, spokesman for the National Liberation
Front, which welcomed the agreement last month.
The accord was reached on September 17 by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Russian resort town of Sochi.
Announcing the deal, Putin said the 15-20 km buffer would fall along the “contact line” between rebel and regime forces, without specifying a geographic location.
All factions in the demilitarised zone must withdraw heavy weapons by October 10, and radical groups must leave by October 15. Turkish troops and Russian military police would then monitor the zone, he said.
But questions remain over the finer details, said Sam Heller, analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Broadly, the deal that was reached in Sochi is itself unclear and doesn’t include many practical details,” Heller said.
“That’s why there has been no clear vision for the Syrian opposition on its implementation,” he said.
“Technical talks” were held in recent days between Moscow and Ankara, and Turkish officials are meeting with rebels to clarify the accord’s execution.
“We are still coordinating with the Turkish guarantor on following the agreement and ways to implement it,” said Sayf al Raad, spokesman for Faylaq al Sham, a member of the NLF.
The rebels’ lasting apprehension seems to stem from two points.
First, they worry the zone would be carved exclusively out of rebel territory, with the regime losing no ground.
That prompted Jaish al Izza, a formerly US-backed group, to reject the accord at the weekend.
“We are against this deal, which eats into liberated (rebel-held) areas and bails out Bashar al Assad,” Jaish al Izza chief Jamil al Saleh said.
He feared “the buffer zone would only be from our side,” demanding it be created “evenly” from government and rebel zones.
The second concern is that a Russian military presence would inevitably pave the way for regime troops to enter.
That, the NLF told Ankara on Sunday, would be a red line.
“We discussed the issue, and the NLF took a clear position rejecting this matter,” rebel spokesman Mustafa said, adding that Turkey “pledged that it would not happen”.
A Syrian source close to rebels blamed the muddied waters on poor coordination.
“The difficulties arise from the fact that the Syrian rebel groups are not closely consulted when the Turkish side seals agreements with the Russians,” the source said.
Heller said rebel concerns may be legitimate.
“It was clear from the original Russian-Turkish agreement, published after Sochi, that the demilitarisation zone would be within opposition territory only,” said Heller. — AFP