SUN 16 - 6 - 2019
Date: Oct 1, 2018
Source: The Daily Star
Syrian rebel group says won’t abandon Idlib front lines
BEIRUT: A Syrian rebel group said Sunday that it would not pull back its fighters from front-line positions in the contested northwestern province of Idlib, where Russia and Turkey recently agreed to set up a demilitarized zone to avert an all-out offensive by Syrian regime forces. Failaq al-Sham, one of the main Turkey-backed factions in northern Syria, also said that one of the conditions of the Russia-Turkey deal for rebel groups to withdraw heavy weapons from the zone is meaningless since it has no such weapons there. “We will leave in this buffer area all that is needed to repel any treason or aggression such as anti-armor weapons,” the group said.

The Turkey-Russia deal calls for the removal of all members of Syrian radical groups from the demilitarized zone, as well as the removal of tanks, armored personnel carriers and rebel artillery weapons.

The demilitarized zone is expected to be established by Oct. 15. It will cover a stretch of about 15-20 kilometers, with troops from Russia and NATO-member Turkey conducting coordinated patrols in the zone.

But Failaq al-Sham also said it would not accept any Russian patrols in rebel-held areas once the agreement goes into effect.

The group’s statement is likely to complicate matters further for the Russia-Turkey deal.

The statement was released hours after the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said Failaq al-Sham had begun removing some of its heavy weapons and evacuating some of its positions in the adjacent Aleppo province, which borders Idlib.

Another rebel-group, Jaish al-Izza, Saturday also expressed reservations about the deal that averted a government offensive on Idlib province, the last major stronghold of the Syrian opposition.

Jaish al-Izza said demilitarized zones should not only be established in rebel areas but also in areas under government control.

The group said that Turkey should ensure the Idlib deal does not end up like last year’s de-escalation zones in central and southern Syria, where rebel-held areas were later simply taken over by government forces.

The previous week, two Islamist militant groups in Idlib the Al-Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Din, which is Arabic for “guardians of religion,” and Ansar al-Din, or “partisans of religion” rejected the deal, calling it a “great conspiracy.”

However, the main Al-Qaeda-linked group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which is also the largest militant group in Idlib, has not yet announced its position regarding the demilitarized zone. Meanwhile, Jaish al-Izza clashed with regime forces throughout the night Saturday and into Sunday in the province of Hama, bordering Idlib.

Separate clashes were also taking place in the coastal province of Latakia between extremists and government fighters, the observatory said Sunday.

Idlib and adjacent rebel territory are home to some 3 million people, about half of them displaced from other parts of Syria.

After losing swaths of territory to rebel fighters, Assad appears to have regained the upper hand and now controls around two-thirds of the country. The areas still outside his control are Idlib in the northwest, and a northeastern chunk held by Kurdish authorities where U.S. and other Western troops are present.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Saturday that Damascus would keep “fighting this sacred battle until we purge all Syrian territories” of both radical groups and “any illegal foreign presence.”

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