In #Idlib the Turkish forces would be expected to push back the al-Qaeda-linked HTS, The Times reported

Eldorar Alshamia Editor | 5 May, 2017

Russia and Turkey struck a deal yesterday to set up and monitor “safe zones” in Syria in what could prove to be the biggest step towards an end to the war in years.

The agreement could lead to Turkish troops moving into northwest Syria to guarantee security in rebel-held areas and keep forces linked to al-Qaeda at bay, two sources told The Times.

That would be a major risk for President Erdogan of Turkey, but would mean that for the first time outside powers guaranteeing an interim settlement on both sides would have “skin in the game” and an incentive to make it work. Russia already has forces supporting President Assad and its envoy to ceasefire talks suggested that more troops could be sent as monitors.

A Turkish foreign ministry spokesman described as “far-fetched” the idea that forces might enter Syria to fight al-Qaeda.

The deal would aim to “end all use of weapons, including by aircraft, between clashing parties”, according to a statement by the Turkish foreign ministry. The ceasefire lines would be clearly delineated and, it is hoped, manned by both rebel fighters and Syrian regime troops, who would co-operate to allow aid through.

The proposal was met warily by rebel representatives, who were attending peace talks supervised by Russia, Turkey and Iran in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Those talks were also attended by America’s acting assistant secretary of state, Stuart Jones, the first major presence by a Trump official at Syria negotiations.

The rebels said the deal appeared to be an attempt to divide up Syria. They called for a new ceasefire to cover the entire country and objected to any role for Iran in guaranteeing the deal. “We are against the division of Syria,” a spokesman, Osama Abu Zeid, said. “We are not a party to that agreement and of course we will never be in favour as long as Iran is called a guarantor state.”

However, one source close to the civilian opposition leadership said that what the rebels wanted was now less important than what Turkey wanted. Mr Erdogan had described the deal as “50 per cent of a solution” to the crisis. “Turkey is on board and that’s what matters,” the source said. “Turkey will invade Idlib, create a safe zone there, and push back al-Qaeda.”

Another opposition source pointed to the fact that Turkish troops were already on the border with Idlib.

The Assad regime said curtly that it “supported the Russian initiative” but is likely to be privately strongly objecting to the presence of more Turkish troops. The Turks have already sent forces into northern Syria around the town of al-Bab, where they helped to force out Islamic State.

In Idlib province the Turkish forces would be expected to push back the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is excluded from the “safe zone” proposal. However, the talks in Astana were overshadowed by direct negotiations between Mr Erdogan, who has long proposed safe zones, and President Putin of Russia. Mr Putin also spoke to President Trump, who has publicly backed the safe zones idea.

Last night both the Russian and the Turkish delegations said that the Assad regime would be expected to hold its air force back from the safe zones. These are expected to include a much broader area than first stated, including Idlib province and west Aleppo, parts of Lattakia, Homs and Hama.

Eastern Ghouta, the last major enclave near Damascus, would also be covered, as would Deraa and Quneitra, rebel enclaves in the south.

António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, indicated last night that he was encouraged by the the agreement. “It will be crucial to see this agreement actually improve the lives of Syrians,” he said in a statement.

Mr Guterres “welcomed the commitments to ceasing the use of all weapons, particularly aerial assets” and to quickly deliver medical aid and basic necessities. The UN will support de-escalation, a spokesman added.