Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan have agreed to establish a “demilitarized zone” along the border of Idlib – the last rebel holdout in Syria. “We have decided to create a demilitarized zone some 15 to 20 kilometers deep along the line of contact between the armed opposition and regime troops by October 15 of this year,” Putin told journalists at a press conference in Russia’s Black Sea resort city of Sochi, where the two leaders held four hours of talks on Monday.
Jihadist rebels linked to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham – led by Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria – must withdraw from the buffer zone, Putin said. The “memorandum of understanding” has the support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Putin added. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says there will not be a military assault on Idlib as a result of the agreement, Russia’s Interfax reports.
Heavy weapons are to be withdrawn from the area by mid-October and Russian and Turkish troops will jointly patrol the buffer zone, the Russian president said. “Control in the demilitarized zone will be organized together with mobile patrol groups of Turkish contingents and contingents of Russian military police,” Putin said. The leaders remain committed to the Astana peace process, he added. Erdogan said Ankara will maintain its military observation posts in Idlib, where it will continue to do its “duty”. The measures would “prevent a humanitarian crisis”, he said. “Russia will ensure descalation zones are not targeted.”
Rebel forces inside Idlib are backed by Turkey, which shares a border with the province. Russia and Iran meanwhile are supporting the Syrian regime.
Anti-regime forces are now dug in for a last stand in Idlib, home to some three million people. Syrian and Russian planes have carried out multiple forays, striking alleged rebel targets. Rebel forces in Idlib are from two main camps – National Liberation Front rebels backed by Turkey and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham – led by Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria. The UN has warned any assault on Idlib could lead to “the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century”.
During the press conference, Erdogan also accused the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) of “ethnic cleansing”, and vowed efforts must be made to “dry up terror nests” east of the Euphrates. He said the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the YPG, will be eradicated in Syria. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the YPG dominates, are currently fighting the last remnants of ISIS in Deir ez-Zor province.