Spotlight: Turkey, Russia start coordinated patrols in Syria's Idlib to maintain cease-fire deal

Source: Xinhua| 2019-03-10 04:58:51|Editor: Liu
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ANKARA, March 9 (Xinhua) -- Turkey and Russia started coordinated patrols in and around the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, the last major area held by rebels, as part of a deal brokered last year, Turkey's Defense Minister declared on Friday.

"Russia will begin patrols in the border area outside Idlib, while Turkish Armed Forces' patrols will start in the demilitarized zone," Hulusi Akar told state-run Anadolu Agency.

The minister also announced that a previous restriction on aircraft of Turkish Air Forces in Idlib's airspace was lifted from March 8.

After a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Feb. 14, Turkish President Recap Tayyip Erdogan said no heavy armed elements were seen during the drone surveillance in the demilitarized zones in Syria.

"It is very important that the cooperation displayed in context of using air space in Idlib, is also displayed for Afrin and region of Euphrates Shield," Erdogan added.

The Russian-Turkish coordinated patrols are aimed to ensure that all armed groups respect the cease-fire as part of a deal reached last September between the two countries over Idlib.

As the supporter of the Syrian rebels, Turkey aims to avert a massive assault on Idlib controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, and its adjacent areas, by creating a 15-to-20 km buffer zone ringing the region.

The agreement envisaged withdrawing HTS from the zone and heavy weapons held by Syrian rebels in Idlib city handed over by Oct. 20, but the timeframe is now delayed by the coordinated patrols.

In January, the HTS even enhanced its control of the region by launching further regime attacks in Idlib.

"Turkish army assumes the duty of protecting against the HTS and its soldiers are further pushing into fire line," said Kerim Has, a Moscow-based expert of Turkey-Russia relations.

About the possible risks for Turkey, Has warned that it is still unclear whether the zones the Turkish soldiers are patrolling have been fully cleared of heavy arms.

The HTS and Turkish troops might confront during the patrols, he explained.

But the HTS and Turkey seem to have a "tacit agreement," said Has, pointing to the fact that the jihadist group has never attacked the Turkish troops, and was even reported to have escorted the Turkish military convoy during their entrance to the rebel stronghold in October 2017.

"However ... Turkey can not control the HTS and there is always a risk of attack," he added.

In addition, the Turkish observation posts on the borders of Idlib are also surrounded with HTS militants, the expert noted.

Turkey has established 12 observation points from Idlib's north to south in order to monitor and sustain the cease-fire agreement, deliver humanitarian aid and keep control in case of a massive influx of refugees.

Notably, a military operation against the last rebel stronghold is inevitable despite the delay in the implementation of Idlib deal, Has noted.

Russians want the elimination of HTS, and firstly they hope to see the debilitation of the group by the hands of Turkey, he said.