Jihadis in Syria’s Idlib, a stronghold of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists considered one of the international terrorist group’s most potent wings, reportedly failed to meet Monday’s deadline to pull out of a planned demilitarized zone in the country’s last rebel bastion as part of a Russian-Turkish agreement.
Under the deal, Russia and Turkey were expected to establish a horseshoe-shaped buffer zone (nine to 15 miles) in Idlib free of jihadis and their heavy weapons by Monday.
However, jihadis “continue to occupy the zone, throwing the deal into doubt,” the Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency reported.
On Sunday, the most powerful Islamic terrorist force in Idlib, an al-Qaeda-linked alliance known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), vowed to continue fighting, AFP noted.
“We have not abandoned our choice of jihad and fighting towards implementing our blessed revolution,” said HTS.
“We appreciate the efforts of all those who strive inside and abroad to protect the liberated area,” the alliance said in an apparent reference to Turkey, an ally of opposition forces in Syria.
“But at the same time, we warn of the deceitfulness of the Russian occupier,” HTS said of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s ally Moscow.
Most of Idlib’s rebel factions, namely the Turkish-allied coalition of groups known as the National Liberation Front (NLF), have already expressed their support for the Russia-Turkey deal reached in September.
Under the agreement, Russian and Turkish troops are expected to conduct joint patrols along the buffer zone’s perimeter, eliminate jihadist groups, withdraw heavy weapons, and implement a ceasefire between opposition forces and pro-Assad troops.
Citing the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that uses a network of ground sources to monitor the conflict, Al Jazeera reported that the jihadis were not leaving the outlined demilitarized area.
“The jihadists not withdrawing gives the regime and Russia an excuse to carry out a military operation at least within the demilitarized zone,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the chief of the monitor group, proclaimed.
HTS likely “tried to gain time by neither explicitly refusing nor accepting the deal” between Russia and Turkey, he noted.
The deal was supposed to avert a bloody offensive by Russian and Iranian-backed dictator Bashar al-Assad that the United Nations believed would trigger the “worst humanitarian catastrophe” of the 21st century.
On Monday, the Syrian regime’s foreign minister declared that the Iranian and Russian-backed Assad forces stood ready to fight jihadis who refused to vacate the northwestern region of Idlib as part of the Moscow-Ankara deal, Reuters reported.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem noted that it was up to Russia to judge whether the rebels and jihadis would abide by Monday’s withdrawal deadline.
“Our armed forces are ready around Idlib to eradicate terrorism if the Idlib agreement is not implemented,” al-Moualem told reporters, according to Reuters.
“Idlib, as any other province, has to return to Syrian sovereignty. We prefer to have it through peaceful means, through reconciliation, but if not there [are] other options,” he added.
Al Jazeera noted that the al-Qaeda-linked HTS along with other extremists from groups like Hurras al-Din and Ansar al-Islam hold “the lion’s share of Idlib.”
“Those groups also control more than two-thirds of the planned buffer zone and were supposed to withdraw by Monday,” the news outlet pointed out.
Last week, Russell Travers, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), a component of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), told American lawmakers that al-Qaeda is also affiliated with Syria’s Hurras al-Din group.
“Al-Qa’ida retains close ties with a variety of militant and terrorist elements that threaten U.S. interests including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, as well as Syria-based Hurras al-Din, which includes several al-Qa‘ida veterans and allies among its ranks,” he testified.
Getting the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadis to leave the area has proven to be difficult, Al Jazeera acknowledged.
“If HTS acts as a spoiler to the agreement on the ground, this will probably lead to one of two scenarios: either Turkey and the NLF launch military action against HTS, or Russia will seize the opportunity with the support of the regime and its allies to enter Idlib,” Nawar Oliver, an analyst for the Turkey-based Omran Center told Al Jazeera.
“The ramifications of that move could be vast,” he added.