THU 26 - 11 - 2020
Date: Mar 6, 2020
Source: The Daily Star
Uneasy calm in Syria's Idlib as Russia-Turkey ceasefire takes effect
BEIRUT: Opposition activists and a war monitor reported a complete absence of Russian and Syrian government warplanes in the skies of Idlib and a relative calm in the area Friday morning, following a cease-fire deal brokered by Turkey and Russia that halted a terrifying campaign of bombing from above.

Airstrikes over the past three months killed hundreds and sent a million people fleeing toward the Turkish border during the Russia-backed Syrian government assault on the country's last rebel stronghold.

Although warplanes no longer flew sorties overhead, the activists said there was minor shelling in some areas after the truce went into effect at midnight Thursday.

Nearly a million civilians have fled their homes due to the bloodshed and dozens of Turkish soldiers have been killed.

Putin and Erdogan agreed on the ceasefire from midnight Friday after more than six hours of talks in Moscow.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres "hopes that this agreement will lead to an immediate and lasting cessation of hostilities that ensures the protection of civilians in northwest Syria", his spokesman said in a statement Thursday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, which had reported bombings just minutes before the midnight deadline, said there was "relative" calm in the region after the ceasefire came into operation.

The Britain-based Observatory reported that Russian and Syrian air strikes had halted but said there was "artillery fire... by Syrian regime forces on the positions of insurgent groups" in areas controlled by militants in parts of Aleppo and Hama, bordering Idlib.

The situation in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria's nine-year civil war, had become critical as Ankara for the first time launched a direct offensive against President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Earlier, Putin told a joint press conference that the agreement would "serve as a good basis for ending fighting" in Idlib.

Erdogan, however, added that Turkey reserved the right to "retaliate with all its strength against any attack" by Damascus.

The agreement will also create a security corridor along the key M4 highway in northern Syria, where Turkish and Russian forces will launch joint patrols from March 15.

Russia has requested a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council for Friday in order to brief members on the agreement, a diplomatic source told AFP.

But there was skepticism over the deal among those displaced by the fighting.

"I don't think this will last long," Mouawiya Agha, originally from Sarmin in the south of the province, told AFP.

"It will end like the ones before," said the 33-year-old father of four, referring to an agreement reached in the Russian city of Sochi in 2018 that created a "de-escalation" zone in Idlib.

- More Turkish soldiers killed -

Turkey has long backed certain rebel groups against Assad but its priority now is to stop an influx of refugees among those fleeing an offensive the regime has been pressing on Idlib since December.

Ankara has demanded the European Union support its actions in Syria and last week opened its border with EU member Greece to migrants -- a move decried by some in the bloc as "blackmail".

In the run-up to Thursday's talks, Russia and Turkey had traded accusations of violating the deal.

Turkey officially declared an operation against the Assad government over the weekend, after 34 Turkish soldiers died in an air strike blamed on Damascus.

It has since downed three Syrian warplanes and killed dozens of soldiers and allied fighters, according to monitors.

Two more Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian regime fire in Idlib, the defense ministry said, just hours before the ceasefire took effect.

The Turkish defense ministry said early Friday Turkish armed drones "neutralized" 21 regime troops in strikes at 4pm local time Thursday in retaliation for the soldiers who were killed.

- Migrants mass on border -

The deal leaves open the fate of the Turkish observation posts in Idlib, which have been surrounded since Damascus launched its offensive.

But it does mark the first time Russian and Turkish forces will operate jointly in Idlib.

The security corridor along the M4 highway, which connects second city Aleppo to the coast through Idlib, will run six kilometers (around four miles) deep both north and south of the highway.

The joint Russian-Turkish patrols will operate between the town of Tronba in Idlib and a village in Latakia province, a regime stronghold.

Fighting continued elsewhere in Idlib Thursday, with Russian air strikes killing at least 15 civilians gathered outside the town of Maaret Misrin, the Observatory said.

Erdogan warned Europe Wednesday that it must support Turkey's "political and humanitarian solutions in Syria" if it wants to avoid a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis.

Thousands of migrants have massed at the Turkish-Greek border since Erdogan gave them the green light to try to enter Europe, leading to clashes with Greek police.

Turkey hosts roughly 3.6 million refugees from Syria -- and hundreds of thousands from elsewhere -- and Erdogan's move has sparked concern in Europe of a renewed influx of migrants.

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