Idlib truce in question after jihadists fail to leave buffer area
Militants in Syria's Idlib failed to meet a Monday deadline to leave a planned buffer zone ringing the country's last rebel-held province.
A Russian-Turkish truce agreement reached nearly a month ago for the northwestern province gave "radical fighters" until 15 October to leave a proposed demilitarised area between regime and opposition forces.
The accord was a last-ditch effort to stave off a regime onslaught on Idlib, which is home to around three million people.
"We did not document the withdrawal of any jihadist fighters from the entire demilitarised zone," Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, said on Monday.
Jihadists had until midnight Sunday to Monday to pull out, according to Abdel Rahman and two rebel commanders in Idlib.
The Syrian regime said it would take "time" to judge if the deal had failed.
Hours before the cut-off time, Idlib's jihadist heavyweight Hayat Tahrir al-Sham vowed to continue fighting.
"We have not abandoned our choice of jihad and fighting towards implementing our blessed revolution," said HTS, an alliance led by Al-Qaeda's onetime Syria branch.
HTS and other jihadists hold over two-thirds of the planned buffer area, and over half of the rest of Idlib.
The deal provides for a roughly 10 mile buffer zone semi-circling opposition-held areas in Idlib and the neighbouring provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.
Late Saturday, mortar rounds fired from the buffer hit regime positions and killed two soldiers, the Observatory said, indicating heavy arms may still be in the zone.
HTS has yet to take a formal stance on the Russian-Turkish truce, but it and other jihadists appeared to have quietly pulled out their heavy arms in line with the first deadline on 10 October.
Experts say the onus is now on Ankara and Moscow -- the deal's two sponsors and the chief powerbrokers of the Syrian war -- to overcome the missed deadline.
Last week, Russia hinted that it could accept a brief delay if it meant the spirit of the deal was still upheld, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavror saying a delay of one or two days would "make no difference".
And Syria's top diplomat Walid Muallem said in an interview earlier this month that the deal may take until December to execute.
About half of Idlib's 3 million people are refugees who fled other parts of Syria following previous regime assaults.
A new regime offensive on Idlib would likely uproot 800,000 people, the UN has warned, and spark the "worst humanitarian crisis" of the 21st century.
Follow us on Twitter: @The_NewArab