Idlib ceasefire remains fraught with obstacles as Turkish-backed rebels announce withdrawal from buffer zone

An NLF fighter in southwest Idlib province on Sunday. (Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP)

AMMAN: Turkish-backed rebel groups completed withdrawals of heavy weaponry from a proposed buffer zone surrounding northwestern Idlib province on Monday, in line with last month’s Russian-Turkish agreement over the fate of Syria’s last remaining rebel stronghold.

Withdrawals from the roughly 15- to 20-kilometer-wide buffer zone, which began on Saturday, come just two days ahead of a deadline key to the survival of an agreement that has—until now—averted a widely anticipated, all-out pro-government offensive on the northwestern province.

Naji Mustafa, a spokesperson for the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF)—a coalition of 11 armed rebel groups formed in May with Ankara’s backing—told Syria Direct on Monday that rebels had removed heavy weaponry, including rocket launchers and artillery.

“Heavy weaponry has been returned to the rear headquarters of [NLF] factions near the border of the demilitarized zone,” Mustafa said, adding that NLF checkpoints and operational headquarters would remain intact within the buffer zone, along with small arms stockpiles.

A commander in the Free Idlib Army, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press, added that rebels were meanwhile fortifying positions along the buffer zone.

“Our factions will try to compensate for the withdrawal [of heavy weaponry] with the redeployment of [more] troops and light weapons along the frontline,” the commander said.

Government shelling continues

On September 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced an agreement—ostensibly meant to avoid an all-out offensive on Syria’s rebel-held northwest—that established a timeline for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry and hardline groups from the area.

While rebels were expected to withdraw heavy weaponry before the October 10 deadline, the agreement stipulates that hardline Islamist groups—such as Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (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.

Pro-government media reported that HTS had begun the early stages of removing their own heavy weaponry from areas designated as within the buffer zone on Monday morning.

Syria Direct was not able to independently verify the reports, and an HTS spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, a member of the Idlib branch of the Syrian Civil Defense, a first response organization commonly referred to as the White Helmets, told Syria Direct on Monday that he was unaware of any changes on the ground in the HTS-controlled town of Jisr a-Shughour, where he is currently based.

“As civilians, we haven’t seen any weaponry withdrawal from this area,” the rescue worker said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from local hardline groups.

“However, we don’t know if there has been movement from other forward areas. It’s not clear yet.”

As the October 10 and October 15 deadlines approach, the Syrian army and its allies have continued bombarding key rebel positions and opposition-held towns in and around the buffer zone.

Pro-opposition media outlets reported on Sunday that surface-to-surface missiles targeted a number of locations around the buffer zone town of Latamna in nearby northern Hama province, as well as border areas of the northern Aleppo countryside.

Assad: Idlib ‘will return to Syrian state control’

The possibility of a sustained ceasefire has already drawn thousands of civilians back to their abandoned homes and neighborhoods along the demarcation lines.

“God willing, the situation will stay as it is, and I’ll return and settle for good with my family here,” Abdul Hay al-Manaf, a father of three who recently returned home to Latamna, told Syria Direct late last month.

However, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad suggested earlier this week that the agreement was only a temporary fix on the road to a complete reconquest of rebel-held territory in the northwest.

"This province and other Syrian territories remaining under the control of terrorists will return to Syrian state [control]," Assad said during a speech to the Baath Party’s central committee in Damascus on Sunday.

According to Nicholas Heras, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, renewed bombardments and bellicose rhetoric reflect posturing by Damascus as outside actors take actual lead in shaping the future of the north.  

“The Assad government is basically saying that they will continue to resist the ‘enemies’ of the state, and maintain the ability to go after ‘terrorists’ there,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “Ultimately though, Russia will act as a check on those ambitions.”

“It’s Russia and Turkey that will eventually determine the fate of greater Idlib,” Heras added.

Even so, the road ahead in Idlib remains fraught with obstacles—for armed groups on the ground as well as regional powers navigating what still remains a relatively fragile calm.

Despite the partial demilitarization of the buffer zone, its final borderlines have yet to be definitively drawn out on a map—Turkish journalist Sabri Ali Oglu, citing senior sources in Ankara, reported on Monday that backroom negotiations were still ongoing between Turkish and Russian officials to finalize the new borders.

In coming weeks, the buffer zone is also slated to see the first joint patrols of Turkish and Russian forces tasked with ensuring the continuity of the agreement.

However, NLF spokesman Mustafa suggested on Monday that rebel groups would not accept Russian involvement in areas of the buffer zone under nominal opposition control.

“There will not be any role for Russian forces in this area—only opposition forces with Turkish oversight,” he said, adding that rebels “stand ready to fight should the regime or Russia violate this agreement.”

The Russian-Turkish agreement has been widely credited with avoiding a full-on government-led campaign to retake northwestern Syria, which observers had warned would be devastating for both rebel factions and civilians.

The Syrian government has recaptured a series of major opposition strongholds over the past two years, evacuating rebel fighters, their families and those refusing to remain under government control to the country’s rebel-held northwest.

With additional reporting by Jodi Brignola.

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

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.