The leaders of Russia and Turkey have agreed to establish a de-militarised zone in Syria’s Idlib province, in a move that ostensibly puts on hold a threatened all-out assault by government forces on Syria’s last rebel bastion.
The announcement was made on Monday during a press conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Speaking alongside Erdogan, Putin said the 15-20km-wide zone would be established by October 15.
This would entail a “withdrawal of all radical fighters” from Idlib, including the al-Nusra Front, Putin said, referring to Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is dominated by a rebel faction previously known as al-Nusra Front before renouncing its ties to al-Qaeda.
Putin added that heavy weapons would be withdrawn from all opposition forces by October 10 – an approach supported by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
By the end of 2018, transportation routes linking Syria’s key port of Latakia with major cities Aleppo and Hama must also be restored, added the Russian president, a major Assad ally.
Describing the agreement as a “serious result”, Putin said that “Russia and Turkey have confirmed their determination to counter terrorism in Syria in all its forms”.
For his part, Erdogan said both his country and Russia would carry out coordinated patrols in the de-militarised zone, and reiterated that the biggest threat to Turkey was the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who control swaths of territory in northeast Syria.
“We decided on the establishment of a region that is cleaned of weapons between the areas which are under the control of the opposition and the regime,” said Erdogan, whose administration backs certain rebel groups in Idlib.
“In return, we will ensure that radical groups, which we will designate together with Russia, won’t be active in the relevant area,” he added.
“We will prevent a humanitarian tragedy which could happen as a result of military action.”
The United Nations has warned that a large-scale offensive on the northwestern province, home to three million people, would result in a “bloodbath” and lead to the “worst humanitarian catastrophe in the 21st century”.