Russia and Turkey have agreed to create a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib province, potentially thwarting a large-scale military operation and impending humanitarian disaster in the country’s last rebel stronghold.
Speaking alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at talks in Sochi on Monday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the creation of a 15-20 kilometer (approximately 9-12 miles) demilitarized zone will prevent a “humanitarian crisis” in the northwestern province.
All heavy military equipment tanks, ground-to-air missiles and mortars of all the opposition groups will be removed by October 10, the leaders said. The zone, which will be patrolled by Turkish and Russian military units, will become operational from October 15.
Erdogan described the agreement as a “solution” to the issues in the region.
“Russia and Turkey will both have coordinated patrol activities on both sides of the border at the demilitarized zone,” Erdogan said.
“With this agreement, I believe that we will prevent a big humanitarian crisis in Idlib,” Erdogan added.
In recent weeks, Syrian and Russian planes have conducted scores of airstrikes in Idlib in the run-up to an anticipated offensive by Russian-backed Syrian forces to retake the last part of the country under armed opposition.
In a report Friday, Amnesty International accused the Syrian government of using outlawed cluster weapons and unguided barrel bombs in the attacks against the opposition groups.
Armed groups in Idlib province — increasingly dominated by Islamist extremists — have since early August been arresting people who promote and pursue reconciliation and surrender agreements with the Syrian regime, according to statements from members of the opposition, the armed groups themselves and an Idlib-based activist who talked to CNN last week.
Last week, UN officials said that more than 30,000 people fled the province in anticipation of the government offensive.
The Russian Defence Ministry ruled out new military operations in Idlib province on Monday, according to Russia’s state news agency TASS.
According to the report, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was asked by a journalist if no more military operations were planned to be held in Idlib, to which he replied “yes”.
Shoigu reportedly added: “In the hours to come, we plan to make final agreements with them (the Turkish side) on the remaining provisions, which are stipulated in this document.
By Hande Atay Alam, Emma Burrows and Kara Fox, CNN