Syria regime agrees to Idlib truce if buffer zone implemented

Damascus (AFP) –


The Syrian government has agreed to a truce in the war-torn northwestern region of Idlib on condition a Turkish-Russian buffer-zone deal is implemented, state news agency SANA reported Thursday.

The announcement, which follows weeks of heavy bombardment in the region of some three million residents, came as talks resumed in Kazakhstan between rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran.

SANA cited a military source who announced the regime's "approval for a ceasefire in the deescalation zone in Idlib starting from tonight" on condition jihadists and rebels withdraw forces and weaponry from a buffer zone as per the deal between Moscow and Ankara.

Most of Idlib province and parts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia are controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

The region is supposed to be protected from a massive government offensive by the Turkish-Russian deal struck in September in the Russian resort of Sochi.

But the deal has faltered and Syrian forces, along with Russia, have stepped up their bombardment there since the end of April.

The government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has accused Turkey of dragging its feet in implementing the deal, which provided for a buffer zone of up to 20 kilometres (12 miles) between the two sides, free of heavy and medium-sized weaponry.

Government forces and jihadists have also clashed on the edges of the buffer zone, where Russian and Syrian air strikes have continued as heavy clashes saw regime forces seize several villages, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

The Observatory said Thursday two girls had been killed in bombing on the town of Jisr al-Shughur, although it was not possible to confirm the nature of the strikes.

The Observatory, which relies on a vast network of contacts across Syria, says some 790 civilians have been killed in the past three months along with 1,000 rebels and jihadists and around 900 pro-government fighters.

Hospitals, schools and markets have been hit in the fighting.

Idlib health department's deputy director Mustafa al-Ido said Thursday that saying 12 hospitals in the region were now out of service due to Russian and Syria bombing.

- 'Targeting ambulances' -

The head of the White Helmets rescue group Raed Saleh said 15 of the organisation's medical centres had been targeted.

He said Russian aircraft had been "constantly following" and targeting ambulances.

But Moscow's Syria envoy on Thursday welcomed the move by Damascus.

"Of course, we welcome the Syrian government's decision to introduce a truce," Alexander Lavrentyev was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency after the first day of peace talks in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan.

He said it was now up to jihadists and rebels to honour previous peace agreements.

Residents of the region, many of whom have been displaced by fighting in other parts of Syria, expressed doubts about the regime's announcement.

"It's nonsense," said Abdel Rahman al-Khishin, who fled the town of Fuaa because of the bombing.

"Russia always agrees to ceasefires but ends up bombing," said the 23-year-old, who is now living in farmland near the town of Binnish.

"If they respect it this time, we will go back home".

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and drawn in world powers since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.