Syrian opposition groups want Turkey to help avoid Russian patrols in the demilitarized zone around northwestern Syria's Idlib province, the last bastion of the opposition, due to fears of possible violations of the deal reached in the Sochi talks.
Contrary to their initial support of the deal reached on Sept. 27, opposition groups expressed their unhappiness of the planned presence of Russian forces in the neutral zone due to their "rooted distrust" in the country.
Naji Abu Huthaifa, spokesman of the Turkey-backed National Front for Liberation said on Tuesday, "We don't trust the Russians and expect they won't abide by the deal at any moment."
In relation to the issue, Sheikh Omar Hutheifa, a leader of the National Front for Liberation, stated that they expect no entry of Russian troops in the city and consider this as a red line that cannot be breached. However, despite the opposition's expectations, under the Sochi deal the zone is meant to be safeguarded by joint Russia and Turkey patrols. A 20-square-kilometer demilitarized zone between the armed opposition and regime forces in Idlib was agreed upon in a bid to stave off an offensive on the city which would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.
The deal sees the removal of heavy weapons of warring parties by Oct. 15 and the withdrawal of opposition groups, including al-Qaida linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), from the area, while the moderate opposition groups will remain put. Accordingly, the National Front for Liberation previously published a statement declaring its readiness to cooperate with Turkey and their distrust of Russia, Iran, and the regime.
Faylaq al-Sham also announced that they began pulling out from parts of northern Syria. However, the group later indicated that they will not withdraw from the demilitarized zone in Idlib and their heavy weapons were not positioned near it. Similarly, Jaysh al-Izzah, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction, objected to Russian patrols. Distrust of opposition groups that are already wary of Russia and the regime, was fueled by recent developments after the Sochi deal. While the boundaries of the zone have yet to be decided through ongoing technical discussions, the armed opposition claims that the demilitarized area was only established in currently opposition-held areas excluding mostly regime-held territories.
Also, regime forces and Iranian-backed paramilitary groups are sporadically shelling opposition fronts in Idlib.
Reportedly, despite some opposition groups' statements of withdrawal from the neutral zone, there was no military withdrawal on the part of the regime, which widens the trust deficit.
Reneged promises fuel
opposition's fears in Idlib
The opposition's prominent source of distrust comes from experiences of Russian and regime attacks on the de-escalation zones in Syria. Turkey, Russia, and Iran launched what has come to be known as the Astana process in January 2017, with the aim of bringing all warring parties in the Syrian conflict to the table. The Astana process resulted in an agreement for four de-escalation zones in Idlib - one in the north of the central city of Homs, one in the Eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus and two in the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra. The cease-fire, however, had recently come to an end as the regime forces backed by Russia and Iran had carried out heavy bombardment since Sept. 8. Daraa, eastern Ghouta and northern Homs were all captured by Syrian regime forces through military means.
Prior to the Sochi agreement, the province had been targeted by the fierce airstrikes from Russia and Syrian regime, who claimed they were fighting the most powerful extremist group in the region, HTS.
Idlib is the last remaining de-escalation zone and home to 3 million people including opposition fighters and internally displaced people coming from other parts of the war-torn country. Meanwhile, in an interview broadcast on Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem indicated that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov assured him the process is proceeding in line with the Sochi deal.
"According to our information, we believe that Turkey is capable of carrying out its obligations," Muallem said.
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