Rebels complete heavy arms pullout from Idlib zone
Turkey says a planned buffer zone in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib has been cleared of heavy weapons as part of a deal reached between Moscow and Ankara, but experts say Ankara still has more challenges ahead.
The National Liberation Front (NLF), an umbrella organisation of Turkey-backed rebels that includes the Free Syrian Army, confirmed to Al Jazeera that it had completed the process of withdrawing its heavy weapons from Idlib, the last rebel-held bastion in Syria.
"Our heavy weapons – including tanks and cannons – have been moved to the back lines of the de-militarised zone so that they are no longer a target for the Russian warplanes," NLF spokesperson Naji al-Mustafa told.
"We will remain in our defence lines with our small arms and light weapons," al-Mustafa said.
The agreement, signed on September 17 in Russia's Sochi, aims to stave off a large-scale government assault on Idlib by creating a 15-20km buffer zone ringing the area.
The zone – expected to be established by October 15 – is meant to stretch from neighbouring Latakia's northern suburbs all the way to the outskirts of Aleppo's northwestern region.
The United Nations has warned that a government-led attack on Idlib would create a humanitarian disaster in the region, home to nearly three million people, half of whom are internally displaced from previous offensives.
While previous operations ended with negotiated transfers of fighters and their families to the north, an Idlib offensive will leave residents with an ultimatum; either to cross over to Turkish-controlled territory or to remain living under Assad's influence once again.
In the past few days, Turkey has sent reinforcements to its 12 observation posts scattered across Idlib and dispatched troops to patrol the de-militarised area.
According to the deal, Turkish forces and Russian military police will oversee security in the area – but it remains unclear whether Russian forces will be patrolling the rebel-held side of the zone.
Observers say disarming the zone is only one aspect of the agreement, which also requires the withdrawal of all so-called radical fighters from the area by October 15.
This includes Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is dominated by a rebel faction that is a former al-Qaeda affiliate.
"There are still clauses in the agreement that are open to various interpretations by either the Turks or the Russians," Ahmed Abazeid, an Istanbul-based Syrian researcher told.
"The deal is basically a long-term negotiation tactic between the two countries," he said.