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Syria opposition rejects Idlib demilitarisation amid uncertainty over Sochi deal

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shake hands after a joint press conference in Sochi, Russia on 17 September, 2018 [Halil Sağırkaya/Anadolu Agency]

Syrian opposition group Faylaq Ash-Shaam denied reports that it has started withdrawing its soldiers and heavy weaponry from Idlib, amid growing resistance from rebel factions to the deal brokered by Turkey and Russia in Sochi last month.

Reuters reported last week that Faylaq Ash-Shaam was the first group to comply with a requirement to leave a demilitarised buffer zone agreed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin that averted a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive. An official statement from the group, which has some 8,500 to 10,000 fighters under its command, denied that any withdrawal had taken place.

The news came after Jaysh Al-Izza, one of the first Syrian opposition factions to back the deal, confirmed over the weekend that it had also withdrawn its support after the terms of the agreement became apparent.

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“They don’t only want the withdrawal of heavy weapons, but to also remove the revolution’s willpower to re-establish Bashar Al-Assad,” Captain Mustafa Al-Maarati, the spokesman of Jaysh Al-Izza, told On the Ground News. “The solution to the revolution’s victory is to remove the tyrant Bashar Al-Assad and his fascist regime.”

The group also refused the launch of Russian patrols in opposition territories and the reopening of the international between Aleppo, Hama and Latakia, unless detainees held by the Syrian regime are released.

Hurras Al-Din, another armed group designated “radical” by Moscow, also announced its rejection of the deal over the weekend.

“We advise our mujahideen [fighters] brothers in this decisive and dangerous phase… [to] begin military operations against the enemies of religion to thwart their plans,” Hurras Al-Din said in a statement.

The biggest opposition group in Idlib, Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam, has also yet to announce its position regarding the agreement, with members reportedly split on whether to side with Turkish demands.

READ: Thousands of Syrians return to Idlib after Turkey – Russia deal

Whilst the Sochi deal was initially met positively on both sides of the conflict, optimism has drained following revelations that the 15 to 20 kilometre buffer zone was to be absorbed entirely by opposition-held territory in Idlib, with no military withdrawal on the part of the regime.

Skirmishes have also continued to take place between forces allied to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and opposition groups, with irregular shelling in Aleppo and Hama in the past week, despite the agreement stipulating a total ceasefire.

“The Sochi agreement was an excuse to exit the Astana agreement. Astana stated the formation of de-escalation zones. President Erdogan admitted that the de-escalation zones have totally collapsed,” Captain Al-Maarati said, reflecting growing pessimism about the long term impact of the settlement amongst fighters and civilians.

Erdogan has repeatedly vowed that Turkey will tackle factions designated as terrorist groups by Russia, and has been exerting pressure for opposition groups to comply with the conditions of the agreements. A campaign of assassinations of senior opposition commanders that started earlier this year has also continued, with suspicions of Turkish involvement.

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Prior to the agreement, Russia and the Syrian regime had been advancing on the north for the past several weeks, prompting international fear of a looming largescale attack. Home to some three million people, half of whom are displaced from elsewhere in Syria, Turkey and Russia were congratulated on averting a potential bloodbath in arriving at an agreement.

Erdogan announced yesterday that a subsequent meeting between Turkey, Russia, France and Germany will convene in the next month, with the delegations expected to discuss the ongoing conflict and the future status of Idlib.

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