The buffer zone must be free of all fighters by Monday
Syria's Idlib deal deadline approaches as most heavy weapons withdrawn
As the new school year begins in Syria and children resume their studies, a different kind of deadline closes in on Idlib province. Wednesday marks the cut-off point for rebels to withdraw heavy weapons from buffer zones agreed between Russia and Turkey.
The pullback is the first major test of a deal brokered by Syrian government ally Russia and Turkey last month to avoid what the United Nations warned would be the appalling humanitarian consequences of a major government offensive on the rebel stronghold.
According to the Idlib agreement, shaken on by President Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyep Erdogan in Sochi, Russia, a demilitarised zone between 15 and 20 kilometres wide ringing the province is to be established and patrolled by Turkish troops and Russian military police. In addition to this, "radical elements" are to be removed from the area by 15 October and two key highways running through Idlib reopened by the end of the year.
For weeks now Idlib’s residents have been spared the sound of jets rumbling overhead.
But while some civilians have breathed a cautious sigh of relief, the success of the agreement is not in their hands. It depends instead on the two key players on the ground – the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) and Tahrir Al Sham, formerly Al Qaeda's Syria branch.
Tahrir Al Sham, which controls more than two-thirds of the buffer zone around Idlib along with other groups, has so far not given any response to the truce. However on Saturday in an operation that continued until Tuesday evening Tahrir Al Sham and smaller factions quietly began withdrawing their heavy arms. By Tuesday evening both the National Liberation Front (NLF) and Tahrir Al Sham had reportedly withdrawn heavy weapons from nearly all of the planned buffer zone, suggesting a positive start to the agreement.
Over 1,000 militants have left the demilitarised zone, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters on Wednesday.
By beginning to pull out its weapons, Tahrir Al Sham was "de facto" implementing the agreement, said the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A source close to Tahrir Al Sham told Agence France-Presse the group had come under pressure to fall in line to avoid further hardship for the rebel zone's three million residents, many of whom have fled previous bloody government offensives on other parts of Syria.
"Everybody has been forced to agree to the initiative, though reluctantly, so that people can enjoy a bit of security and safety after long years of suffering," the source said.
"No faction, rebel or jihadist, would be able to withstand the consequences of any escalation if the deal's terms were not met," said the Observatory's Rami Abdurrahman.
However, notes Sam Heller, a senior fellow with the International Crisis Group, the rebel groups have not surrendered their weapons but merely relocated them.
It is unclear where Tahrir Al Sham have moved their arms to and whether the weaponry is still seen as a threat by the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.
"We did not observe any movement of heavy weapons outside that area. They could have been moved to trenches or secret locations," said Mr Abdurrahman.
Tahrir Al Sham "definitely had some individual figures who took a hard line [against the elements of the agreement] but you don’t know how much of that is for the consumption of HTS base," Mr Heller told The National, using an acronym for Tahrir Al Sham.
Meanwhile on Monday the pro-Ankara National Liberation Front said it had completed its weapons pullback.
In an interview with The National a senior opposition official expressed optimism, saying the agreement to avert an offensive signified a major step towards a negotiated solution to the conflict and away from the regime's military push to recapture all lost territory.
“It kept the lines of the de-escalation zone unchanged, and secured the opposition control, with the Turkish army as a guarantor,” said Hadi Al Bahra, a member of the Syrian negotiations commission.
“For the Russians it’s securing Hmeimim Air Base from the drone attacks. For Iran and the regime it’s more logistical [and] relates to opening the M4 and M5 routes. For the international community, it is the fight against terror, while for Turkey, it saved the civilian population and maintained its control over the area,” said Mr Al Bahra.
The seemingly positive turning point, however, has been undermined by some.
Mr Al Assad on Sunday insisted it was a "temporary measure" and Idlib would eventually return to state control.
However, says the ICG's Mr Heller, "the really decisive vote here belongs to Russia, and Russia is likely balancing a number of different considerations."
By Monday, the buffer zone must be free of all fighters – a successful withdrawal of fighters will be viewed as another step forward toward the end of the war's military phase.
More than 30,000 people have fled their homes since the regime and allied forces resumed air and ground bombardments in September. But as Idlib's children return to school and parents hope for their son's and daughter's safe return home, they can only wait and hope that the agreement holds.
"The steps that are outlined in this agreement are likely welcomed for Idlib civilians," said Mr Heller. "But if the agreement evolved further or if it proves just one step towards an outcome that is more controversial, then who knows."