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Turkey Urges Civilians in Syria’s Idlib to Stand Against al-Qaida Affiliates

DAMASCUS: Turkey has urged civilians in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib to stand against the al-Qaida-linked groups which aim to undermine the demilitarized zone deal backed by Turkey and Russia, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper reported Sunday.

The newspaper cited sources as saying that the Turkish military observation points in several areas in the southern countryside of Idlib have met with civil delegations to stress the importance of the demilitarized zone.

The deal on the demilitarized zone was reached between the leaders of Turkey and Russia during a summit held in the Russian resort city of Sochi in September.

The deal, which has went into force, covered areas in Idlib, which is the last major rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria, as well as adjacent countryside areas of the provinces of Hama, Latakia and Aleppo.

The deal, however, was partially implemented in terms of reducing the rate of violence and the withdrawal of heavy weapons of the rebels from the designated zone, as ultra-radical rebels, such as the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the umbrella group of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, have refused to withdraw.

The ultra-radical rebels in the demilitarized zone were said to have been amassing forces, preparing to attack the Syrian army and undermining the demilitarized zone deal. But they have denied such allegations.

Turkey has been working to keep its end of the deal with the Russians, as it enjoys sway over the majority of the rebel groups in Idlib.

Activists recently said the Turkish intelligence had so far failed to persuade the al-Qaida-linked groups to withdraw from the demilitarized zone amid a tone of dismay from Damascus and its Russian backers about the violations of the Nusra Front.

During the meeting with the civil delegations in Idlib, the Turkish side underlined the importance of the demilitarized zone to avert a military operation in the province by the Syrian army and its Russian allies.

They asked the delegations to work on preventing the Nusra violations.

The Turkish side has also distributed leaflets among the population in the demilitarized zone, saying preserving the zone deal is a “historic obligation” while undermining it will leave repercussions that will affect all, according to the newspaper.

The new development came days after Russia, Turkey, and Iran held the 11th round of peace talks on Syria in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan.

During the talks, the three powers discussed several issues regarding the Syrian situation, mainly the situation in Idlib and the formation of a Syrian constitutional committee.

After the demilitarized zone deal entered its third month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recently said the situation is heated as the ultra-radical rebels and the government forces are preparing for an “unclear future.”

According to the London-based watchdog, violations reported in the zone were on daily basis and the rebels are amassing forces to protect its positions amid fears of an imminent military showdown.

The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is also consolidating positions and fortifying its areas while opening the doors for volunteers to join the ranks of its fighters in Idlib.

It’s worth noting that the ultra-radical rebels control 70 percent of the buffer zone.

The Syrian government has initially welcomed the deal but noted that it was only temporary.

But with the latest violations, the government officials said Idlib will inevitably return under the government control, warning that the situation cannot drag on like this.

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Throughout the crisis, Idlib has emerged as the major destination and stronghold of the Syrian rebels fleeing other parts of the country after deals or surrender.

Idlib is now in a state of severe lawlessness characterized by assassinations, explosions, and infighting.

Idlib is also of strategic significance as it shares a border area with Turkey in the north and neighbors the coastal province of Latakia, hometown of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Notably, the namesake capital city of Idlib lies close to the international road linking the capital Damascus with the northern province of Aleppo.

Idlib is home to around 3.5 million people, including those who evacuated other Syrian areas after the surrender of rebels.