Rebels in north Syria 'begin withdrawing' under Idlib deal

Rebels in north Syria 'begin withdrawing' under Idlib deal
Turkish-backed faction Faylaq al-Sham al-Islami has begun pulling out of areas in Aleppo province after Moscow and Ankara agreed a deal to avert a full-scale regime offensive in nearby Idlib.
3 min read
30 September, 2018
Russia and Turkey agreed to a demilitarised buffer zone between rebels and regime troops [Getty]

Turkish-backed rebels began on Sunday withdrawing from areas in northern Syria under a deal brokered by Ankara and Moscow, a monitor said.

The Russia-Turkey deal looks to avert a large-scale military assault on Idlib province, the country's last major opposition stronghold.

"Units from Faylaq al-Sham al-Islami began pulling out of areas in the southern countryside of Aleppo and the western suburbs of Aleppo city with heavy weapons, including tanks and cannons," said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The pullback is in line with a plan agreed this month between regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey to avert a large-scale regime offensive on the nearby Idlib province and surrounding rebel territory, which included setting up a large demilitarised zone.

The group is the first to comply with the agreement. On Saturday formerly US-backed Syrian rebel group Jaysh al-Izza rejected it, saying the zone to be set up by October 15 would only encompass territory currently under rebel control.

It said the buffer zone should be carved out equally from both rebel-held territory and nearby zones controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We are against this deal, which eats into liberated (rebel-held) areas and bails out Bashar al-Assad," Jaysh al-Izza head Jamil al-Saleh told AFP.

Comment: We must listen to the forgotten voices of Idlib

Faylaq al-Sham has some 8,500 to 10,000 fighters who are part of a Turkish-backed alliance known as the National Liberation Front (NLF), Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The NLF was formed in August and merged Islamist groups Ahrar al-Sham and Nureddine al-Zinki with other rebel factions with Turkey's backing.

It is aimed at countering the growing power of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), led by al-Qaeda's former Syria's affiliate, which controls 60 percent of Idlib.

The NLF controls the rest of Idlib province but is also active in parts of neighbouring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.

"It is the second most powerful group in northern Syria in terms of military equipment and the third largest in terms of manpower," Abdel Rahman said.

Under the Idlib agreement, a 15-20 kilometre (9-12 mile) wide corridor is to be established from which all jihadist fighters must withdraw, paving the way for Turkish and Russian patrols of the area.

Russia-backed Syrian regime forces have massed around Idlib province in recent weeks, sparking fears of an imminent air and ground attack to retake the opposition bastion.

The United Nations, which cautiously backed the Russia-Turkey deal, had warned that an all-out assault on Idlib would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe and possibly one of the worst bloodbaths of Syria's seven-year war.