The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Idlib militants vow to keep fighting as deadline looms

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BEIRUT: The dominant alliance in Syria’s last major rebel stronghold of Idlib province said Sunday that it would continue to fight, hours before a deadline for the militants to withdraw from a planned buffer zone.

“We have not abandoned our choice of jihad and fighting toward implementi­ng our blessed revolution,” said Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate.

HTS did not say whether it agreed with or rejected a RussianTur­key deal agreed last month to set up the demilitari­zed area around the northweste­rn region of Idlib to stave off a regime assault.

The militants Sunday had yet to begin withdrawin­g from the planned buffer zone, activists said, amid reports of rebel shelling.

Under the Russian-Turkey deal the horseshoe-shaped area was to be free of heavy arms by Oct. 10 with “radical fighters” pulling out by Monday.

While the deadline for withdrawin­g heavy weapons was met on time, there has been no indication that the second condition is being implemente­d. “We have not monitored any withdrawal­s by jihadi fighters at all from areas falling in the planned buffer zone,” the Britain-based Syrian Observator­y for Human Rights said.

An AFP correspond­ent in Idlib also said no hard-line factions had moved any of their units in recent days. Idlib and surroundin­g rebel zones are held by a complex array of factions.

Less than half is controlled by the Ankara-backed National Liberation Front, the main rebel conglomera­te there.

But the lion’s share is held by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance led by former Al-Qaeda members, as well as Hurras al-Deen and Ansar al-Islam.

Those militants also control more than two-thirds of the planned buffer zone and are supposed to leave it by Monday. Hurras al-Deen has publicly rejected the agreement.

While Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, widely considered the most powerful force in the area, has not publicly commented on the accord, it quietly abided by its first deadline and restatione­d its heavy arms elsewhere, according to the observator­y.

Observers have said that getting it to execute the deal’s second half would be much more challengin­g.

In a recent report for the Turkeybase­d Omran Center, expert Nawar Oliver described HTS’s approval as the deal’s ultimate “test.”

“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,” he said.

“The ramificati­ons of that move could be vast,” he added.

Syrian pro-government newspaper Al-Watan reported Sunday morning that rebels targeted western parts of Aleppo province with “rocket fire and shelling with heavy weapons, which were supposed to be pulled out from the area.”

And an AFP correspond­ent in western Aleppo reported heavy mortar fire in the area after several days of quiet.

The observator­y also said rebels in the zone fired several “mortar shells at an army position in nearby Hama province, killing two soldiers” late Saturday.

“This is the first clear violation of the deal since the heavy weapons were withdrawn. This area is supposed to be clear of heavy weapons, including mortar shells,” observator­y head Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

Meanwhile, Syrian state terrestria­l TV station resumed broadcasti­ng to the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and surroundin­g areas for the first time in seven years, pro-state TV reported, the latest in government efforts to restore normal life to areas it has recaptured from armed groups.

Al-Ikhbariya said technician­s have installed two transmitte­rs to broadcast state television station and Voice of Youth radio, covering the city of Deir al-Zor and surroundin­g areas.

‘It is the last battle for the militants. They are besieged’

Government forces, aided by Russian aircraft and allied militia, chased Daesh (ISIS) militants out of the city and most of the western banks of the Euphrates river last year.

In a separate offensive that occasional­ly raised tensions, rival U.S.backed Syrian Defense Forces fought the militants on the eastern banks of the river and along the border with Iraq.

The Kurdish-led forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition air power, continue to battle Daesh militants in Hajin, a small pocket east of the river.

Omar Abou Leila, a Deir al-Zor native residing in Europe, said the TV broadcast was restored to government-controlled areas west of the Euphrates, but not to SDF-controlled areas east of the river. Saturday, Daesh militants stormed a settlement for displaced people in Hajin and abducted scores of civilians.

The U.S-led coalition said it couldn’t confirm news of the kidnapping. It said it has been dropping leaflets requesting civilians leave the area for months “to avoid the brutal tactics” of the extremist militant group.

The Syrian Observator­y for Human Rights had said 130 families were kidnapped in the attack that came amid intense fighting between Daesh and the U.S.-backed SDF.

The attack also came amid a desert storm and low visibility.

The SDF reported civilians were kidnapped but didn’t elaborate.

Abou Leila, who runs the Deir alZor 24 news network, said the militants kidnapped civilians during their attack on the Hajin camp, as well as SDF fighters.

“It is the last battle for the militants. They are besieged,” Abou Leila said.

Images appeared on social media of the militants holding at least a couple of men wearing uniforms. In the posting, the militants boasted it has taken Kurdish fighters captive.

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