BEIRUT – A Syrian rebel group said Sunday it would not pull back its fighters from front-line positions in the contested northwestern province of Idlib, where Russia and Turkey agreed to set up a demilitarized zone this month to avert an all-out offensive by Syrian government forces.
Failaq al-Sham, one of the main Turkey-backed factions in northern Syria, also said that one of the conditions of the Russia-Turkey deal — for rebel groups to withdraw heavy weapons from the zone — is meaningless since it has no such weapons there.
“We will leave in this buffer area all what is needed to repel any treason or aggression such as anti-armor weapons,” the group said.
The Turkey-Russia deal calls for the removal of all members of Syrian radical groups from the demilitarized zone, as well as the removal of tanks, armored personnel carriers and rebel artillery weapons form the area.
The demilitarized zone is expected to be established by Oct. 15. It will cover a stretch of about 15-20 kilometers, about 9-12 miles, with troops from Russia and NATO-member Turkey conducting coordinated patrols in the zone.
But Failaq al-Sham also said it would not accept any Russian patrols in rebel-held areas once the agreement goes into effect.
The group’s statement is likely to complicate matters further for the Russia-Turkey deal. The statement was released hours after the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Failaq al-Sham had begun removing some of its heavy weapons and evacuating some of its positions in the adjacent Aleppo province, which borders Idlib.
On Saturday, another rebel-group, Jaysh al-Ezzah, also expressed reservations toward the deal that averted a government offensive on Idlib province, the last major stronghold of the Syrian opposition.
Jaysh al-Ezzah said demilitarized zones should not only be established in rebel areas but also in areas under government control. The group also said Turkey should ensure the Idlib deal does not end up like last year’s de-escalation zones in central and southern Syria, where rebel-held areas were later simply taken over by government forces.
Last week, two jihadi groups in Idlib — the al-Qaida-linked Horas al-Din, which is Arabic for “Guardians of Religion,” and Ansar al-Din, or “Partisans of Religion” — rejected the deal calling it a “great conspiracy.”
However, the main al-Qaida-linked group — Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee — that is also the largest militant group in Idlib, has not yet announced its position regarding the demilitarized zone.