SUN 17 - 2 - 2019
Oct 9, 2018
The Daily Star
Heavy arms go, but Syria rebels stay sharp
Agence France Presse
AL-ISS, Syria: The young dust-covered rebel looked out warily from a dirt trench facing opposing regime forces as his unit pulled heavy weapons from a planned buffer zone in northern Syria.
Squinting in the sun, he watched over the vast agricultural fields and web of dirt roads straddling opposition and government territory.
In the coming days, this area will see the establishment of a demilitarized zone meant to avert a massive regime assault on the Idlib region, the last major rebel bastion in Syria.
A deal reached last month by rebel backer Turkey and regime ally Russia will see the creation of a 15- to 20-kilometer demilitarized area ringing the Idlib region the country’s last insurgent bastion.
Monday, Turkish state news agency Anadolu said Syrian rebels of the National Liberation Front had finished withdrawing their heavy arms from the zone.
The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman, said even Syria’s former Al-Qaeda branch Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and “other less influential militants have withdrawn their heavy weapons from large areas of the demilitarized zone,” hoping to avoid a confrontation with Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters.
The NLF is the main Turkey-backed rebel alliance in the Idlib region, but militant heavyweight HTS and other hard-liners hold a large part of the province and the proposed zone.
HTS has yet to announce its stance on the buffer zone deal.
It also has not comment on the reported withdrawal, which quietly began “two days ago,” according to Abdel-Rahman. “Until now, heavy weapons have been removed from northern Hama and eastern Idlib” located in the proposed zone, he said.
The National Liberation Front had started removing weapons at the weekend. No tanks or rocket launchers could be seen at the NLF’s position on the Al-Iss hilltop, in the westernmost part of Aleppo province near Idlib.
An older, bearded NLF commander walked through the maze of trenches in sandals, a mustard-colored scarf wrapping his head and a Kalashnikov swung across his back. Rusted barrels and loose cinderblocks littered the upper lip of the trenches, providing added protection. Another younger fighter scrambled into a tunnel dug into the hilltop and reinforced with sandbags and corrugated metal.
“Pulling the heavy weapons will not affect our positions. We are continuing to reinforce and bolster them,” NLF commander Abu Walid told AFP.
“Our instructions are to remain in these areas and not retreat until the last drop of blood.”
Government forces are stationed just five kilometers away in the town of Al-Hader, but the front is calm.
The two areas are connected by a trade checkpoint, and trucks of goods can be seen moving back and forth on the dusty road.
As the deadline to establish the buffer zone nears, rebel ally Turkey has dispatched convoys of personnel carriers and troops into Syria on a near-weekly basis.
It already operates more than a dozen monitoring posts around Idlib and Aleppo, and analysts expect the new deliveries to be distributed along what would become a “first line of defense” for opposition areas.
“The entry of Turkish forces to these well-known positions is strengthening day after day,” Abu Walid said.
He said “soldiers, tanks, and heavy weapons” were being brought into the monitoring posts.
Some rebels who have signed up to the accord have raised some objections. They say the deal demands too much of them, and fear that it could eventually pave the way for a regime takeover of their main remaining stronghold. Their wariness may be justified.
Sunday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said the deal is just a “temporary measure” to halt bloodshed and that Idlib would eventually inevitably return to state control.
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