Russia, Turkey extend deadline to clear Syria’s demilitarized zone

Russia and Turkey agreed Thursday to allow opposition groups more time to exit Syria’s western Idlib province as they work to establish a demilitarized zone, the United Nations said.

Syria's Idlib province is home to about 3 million civilians, nearly half of which are internally displaced persons from other areas of the country. File Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/UPI | License Photo
Syria’s Idlib province is home to about 3 million civilians, nearly half of which are internally displaced persons from other areas of the country. File Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/UPI | License Photo

Jan Egeland, senior adviser to the U.N. special envoy for Syria, said it was a “relief” there had been no further violence in the region amid the attempt to set up the zone.
“The Russian and the Turkish side have indicated that indeed more time will be given to implement the agreement,” Egeland told reporters in Geneva.

“Some of the first deadlines have passed … there will be more time for diplomacy and that is a great relief to us,” he said, adding that “if one is to follow a military logic that has too often been followed in this war alone, it would be horrific news for civilians.”

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In mid-September, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced they would create the demilitarized zone by Oct. 15 during a meeting in Sochi, Russia.

Putin said the zone will extend 9 miles to 12 miles deep and that all militants should evacuate the zone along with “heavy armaments, rocket launchers, tanks and mortars of all opposition forces,” by Oct. 10.

The leaders also announced both Turkish and Russian forces would patrol the demilitarized zone.

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Egeland said there haven’t been any air raids in the province in five weeks.

“I can’t remember such a period for the last three years in Idlib. It’s a calm through this very sensitive, complex, difficult area full of three million civilians. It is a welcome calm,” he said.

In addition to opposition group, some 3 million civilians live in Idlib, including 12,000 humanitarian workers, the United Nations said. Some civilians there have fled from other areas of Syria, including from the provinces of Dar’a and Quneitra, and Eastern Ghouta and the outskirts of Damascus.

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The decision to establish the demilitarized zone came after Syria’s government forces, which are backed by Russia, appeared to be preparing a major offensive to clear members of the al-Qaida and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — also known as the al-Nusra Front — militant groups from the area.

In August, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura warned the offensive could add to a “perfect storm” of factors contributing to a potential humanitarian crisis in Idlib.

De Mistura, meanwhile, announced Wednesday he is stepping down from his post after four years. He told the U.N. Security Council he would depart during the last week of November for “purely personal reasons.”

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He said that before he leaves, though, he hopes to work to lay down the groundwork for a new constitution in Syria, starting with the creation of a constitutional committee.

“The United Nations has done all that it can, and frankly more, to find a way to convene a credible and balanced constitutional committee,” he said. “We are ready to do more and in an accelerated way during the forthcoming month, taking advantage of the Idlib window of opportunity, but we are not ready to convene a committee that is not credible and balanced.”

ByDanielle Haynes