Hardline groups within Idlib buffer zone defy withdrawal deadline as rebels, government exchange fire

NLF fighters in rural southern Aleppo on Sunday. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.

AMMAN: Hardline militant groups in Syria’s northwest missed a critical deadline on Monday to withdraw their forces from a proposed “buffer zone” surrounding rebel-held Idlib province, in line with last month’s Russian- and Turkish-brokered de-escalation agreement.

There were no signs on Monday of troop withdrawal from frontline positions ahead of the second deadline stipulated in the Russian-Turkish agreement, according to a conflict monitor, while outbreaks of violence between rebel groups and pro-government forces have added further uncertainty about how the next stages of the agreement will proceed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said it had not observed withdrawals of troops by hardline Islamist groups before the midnight deadline late Sunday.

Hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)—which maintains a presence in roughly 60 percent of the rebel-held northwest—broke a three-week official silence in the wake of the agreement, with a defiant statement late Sunday that nevertheless avoided directly addressing the group’s requested withdrawal from frontline positions.

“Our weapons are the fuse of the Syrian revolution, and a thorn protecting the Sunni people, defending their rights and freeing their land,” the statement read. “We will not give them up or surrender them.”

HTS representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Syria Direct.

Russian state media and other outlets have meanwhile reported that the hardline Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) appeared to be digging in for battle in recent days, rather than withdrawing from positions within the buffer zone in areas of neighboring Latakia province.

TIP maintains a presence in strategic areas around Jisr a-Shughour, which lies inside and along the edge of the proposed buffer zone.

On September 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced an eleventh-hour agreement that established a timeline for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry and hardline groups from the area. The agreement was celebrated for ostensibly thwarting what many expected to be an imminent, all-out offensive by the Syrian government and its allies.

While Turkish-backed rebel groups and nominally FSA-affiliated Jaish al-Izza in Syria’s northwest were expected to withdraw heavy weaponry before the October 10 deadline, the agreement also stipulated that hardline groups—including HTS, which emerged out of Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate—should completely withdraw all of their fighters from the buffer zone by October 15.

However, the refusal of HTS fighters to budge from the buffer zone has raised doubts about the longevity of the agreement.

Meanwhile, violence has escalated along the buffer zone in the days leading up to the October 15 deadline.

On Sunday, rebel forces struck government positions with mortar fire near the small farming town of al-Bahsa, killing two soldiers, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitor.

The attack reportedly came in retaliation for a recent wave of shelling by pro-government forces targeting the towns of Morek, Latamna and the outskirts of Tel Uthman in the northern Hama countryside.

At least three civilians have been injured in bombardments since Sunday, according to Muhammad Abu Malik, a northern Hama-based volunteer from the Syrian Civil Defense, a group of first responders commonly known as the White Helmets.

Monday’s missed deadline follows an October 10 cutoff date for Turkish-backed rebel factions fighting under the banner of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and other rebel groups to fully remove all heavy weaponry from the designated buffer zone.

While NLF-affiliated rebel groups reportedly had completely withdrawn heavy weaponry—including armored vehicles and rocket launchers—from the buffer zone last week, Sunday’s mortar strike against government military targets in al-Bahsa originated from a location within the demilitarized zone, according to SOHR.

An NLF commander who spoke with Syria Direct on Monday denied claims that affiliated groups had failed to comply with the deadline.

“We responded to the Assad regime within the range of our medium weapons, we didn’t respond with heavy weapons,” said NLF spokesperson Naji Mustafa, without elaborating further.

“We are trying to follow the [de-escalation] agreement, but within the scope of maintaining our readiness to fight,” he added.

In another apparent contravention of the agreement—this time by pro-government forces—photos published to social media by a pro-government journalist on Sunday appeared to show Syrian army troops posing with heavy artillery near the small buffer zone town of Mhardeh.

Much of the responsibility for overseeing implementation of the deal on the ground—including the removal of rebel weaponry and hardline groups from the buffer zone—falls to Ankara.

But shows of defiance by HTS, coupled with recent outbreaks of violence, represent a diplomatic setback for Turkey, according to Nicholas Heras, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security.

“This whole situation is calling into question the polite fiction that [Ankara] has the ability to bring the armed opposition to heel—particularly groups like Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham,” Heras told Syria Direct.

“There will come a point where the Turks are going to have to start using sticks instead of carrots with HTS, and really force the issue," he added.

The next concrete deadline stipulated in the timeline of the agreement falls in December, when thru-traffic on the M4 and M5 highways that run through the heart of rebel-held Idlib is expected to resume.

The resumption of trade along the two routes—which connect government-held areas of Aleppo with Latakia and Hama, respectively—would free up commercial and transport links that have been severed since rebels seized vast swathes of the northwest in 2012.

With additional reporting by Jodi Brignola.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.