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Syria’s war: Rebels complete heavy arms pullout from Idlib zone

Withdrawal of arms by rebel groups fulfills first part of a deal Turkey signed with Syrian government ally Russia.

Turkey says a planned buffer zone in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib has been cleared of heavy weapons as part of a deal reached between Moscow and Ankara, but experts say Ankara still has more challenges ahead.

The National Liberation Front (NLF), an umbrella organisation of Turkey-backed rebels that includes the Free Syrian Army, confirmed to Al Jazeera that it had completed the process of withdrawing its heavy weapons from Idlib, the last rebel-held bastion in Syria.

“Our heavy weapons – including tanks and cannons – have been moved to the back lines of the de-militarised zone so that they are no longer a target for the Russian warplanes,” NLF spokesperson Naji al-Mustafa, told Al Jazeera.

“We will remain in our defence lines with our small arms and light weapons,” al-Mustafa said.

The agreement, signed on September 17 in Russia’s Sochi, aims to stave off a large-scale government assault on Idlib by creating a 15-20km buffer zone ringing the area.

The zone – expected to be established by October 15 – is meant to stretch from neighboring Latakia’s northern suburbs all the way to the outskirts of Aleppo’s northwestern region.

The United Nations has warned that a government-led attack on Idlib would create a humanitarian disaster in the region, home to nearly three million people, half of whom are internally displaced from previous offensives.

While previous operations ended with negotiated transfers of fighters and their families to the north, an Idlib offensive will leave residents with an ultimatum; either to cross over to Turkish-controlled territory or to remain living under Assad’s influence once again.

In the past few days, Turkey has sent reinforcements to its 12 observation posts scattered across Idlib and dispatched troops to patrol the de-militarised area.

According to the deal, Turkish forces and Russian military police will oversee security in the area – but it remains unclear whether Russian forces will be patrolling the rebel-held side of the zone.

Observers say disarming the zone is only one aspect of the agreement, which also requires the withdrawal of all so-called radical fighters from the area by October 15.

This includes Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is dominated by a rebel faction that is a former al-Qaeda

Aside from the NLF, HTS is among Idlib’s dominant rebel forces. In 2016, it was designated a “terrorist group” by Russia and thus was never included in ceasefire resolutions and de-escalation attempts.

Since the signing of the deal, HTS has not revealed its stance on the agreement but has accepted to withdraw its heavy weapons from the zone, without announcing that it has formally agreed to do so, activists on the ground confirmed to Al Jazeera.

The move highlights HTS’ attempt to remain on Turkey’s “good side”, Abazeid, who is also an expert on armed groups in Syria, said.

“HTS will do what Turkey says to gain its blessing because they may be a threat in a next phase of this war,” he said.

But HTS’s presence in itself remains a threat to the agreement, despite their decision to disarm since Russia has cited their presence in the past as the reason for attacking areas in Idlib.

The zone covers tens of villages that span across the area, most notably the Jisr al-Shughour district, which has come under government bombardment in the past, villages in the Hama governorate, and villages on the outskirts of Aleppo, as well as Latakia.

Between these villages are defence lines or points guarded by either one, two, or multiple factions – including factions under the NLF, and HTS.

“There aren’t many towns or villages controlled exclusively by HTS,” Ahmed Husseinat, an activist in Jisr al-Shughour, which is controlled by both the NLF and HTS from multiple fronts, told Al Jazeera.

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“There are still clauses in the agreement that are open to various interpretations by either the Turks or the Russians,” Ahmed Abazeid, an Istanbul-based Syrian researcher, told Al Jazeera.

“The deal is basically a long-term negotiation tactic between the two countries,” he said.

This is why isolating HTS and other smaller groups is a complex task facing Turkey at this time, Marwan Kabalan, director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, told Al Jazeera.

According to Kabalan, Turkey has so far succeeded in dividing HTS into two groups – the more “pragmatic” group of Syrians who are keen on protecting their families and local communities from a potential Russian assault and a second group of primarily foreign fighters.

HTS ‘power move’

Rebel infighting in the province has also added complexity to Turkey’s objectives in Idlib.

On Friday, fighting broke out, lasting three consecutive days, between NLF faction Nour al-Din al-Zinki and HTS in Kafr Halab – a town located southwest of Aleppo.

Nour al-Din al-Zinki spokesperson Mohammed Adib told Al Jazeera that HTS launched the attack, saying they were “looking for someone who works for the government”.

“We were surprised to see them surround Kafr Halab on Friday morning … this is the excuse HTS uses every time they launch an aggressive move against any town or village in the area,” Adib said.

While Adib believes the attack was aimed at gaining more ground, experts say it was merely a “power move”.

“HTS still wants to prove it is capable and here on the ground even after Sochi – to show they’re not disintegrated,” Abazeid said.

Kabalan says HTS fears a potential attack by the Turkish-backed NFL.

“They’re trying to please [by agreeing to quietly disarm], but also trying to prove they’re strong,” Kabalan said.

Turkey is still undecided on the way forward to dissolve HTS, but Kabalan says the end game for Russia is to try to achieve its objectives through diplomacy and pressure instead of military force.

“This is why I believe the agreement will hold,” he said.

But Abazeid says differences over how to secure key routes may still jeopardise the deal.

Russia and the government want to establish control over two major highways – the M4, which connects the port city of Latakia to Aleppo, Raqqa and oil-rich Deir Az Zor; and M5, which links the capital Damascus to Aleppo, and eventually to the trade route to Turkey and Europe.

The upcoming phase will also determine whether Turkey will agree to a “soft” government comeback to the province.

“It is for all of these undecided reasons that a fully-fledged assault is still possible,” said Abazeid.

“The excuse will always be the presence of terrorist organisations.”

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