BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian state will recover Idlib through war or peaceful means, a minister was quoted as saying on Tuesday, pointing to the government’s determination to defeat rebels there despite a Russian-Turkish deal that halted an expected army offensive.
Faisal Mekdad, deputy foreign minister, described the Idlib agreement as part of a wider diplomatic track that created “de-escalation” zones in several areas which he noted had later returned to state rule, Syria’s al-Watan newspaper reported.
“As we were victorious in every part of Syria we will be victorious in Idlib and the message is very clear to everyone who is concerned by this matter: We are coming to Idlib through war or peaceful means,” Mekdad said.
The Russian-Turkish agreement last week staved off a threatened government attack by agreeing on the creation of a demilitarised zone between insurgent and government forces in the northwest.
The United Nations says close to three million people live in the rebel-held area, and warned of a humanitarian catastrophe in the event of an offensive.
Under the agreement, announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, insurgents deemed “radical” are to withdraw from the demilitarised zone by the middle of October.
Turkey, which backs some of the rebels in Idlib, is to jointly patrol the demilitarised zone with Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally. Heavy weapons are to be removed from the demilitarised zone by Oct. 10.
The Idlib region and an adjoining area north of Aleppo represent the last major opposition stronghold in Syria, following the defeat of anti-Assad insurgents across most of the country in military campaigns backed by Russia and Iran.
Turkey-allied rebels in Idlib welcomed the agreement, saying it would keep the region out of Assad’s hands. Mekdad said however that all Syrian territory would return to state control, echoing Assad’s vow to recover “every inch” of the country.
The main jihadist group Idlib, Tahrir al-Sham, has yet to state its position on the agreement.
Smaller jihadist factions have rejected it.
Turkey, which is already hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees, is determined to prevent another influx.
While declaring that “radicals” must withdraw, Turkey has said the Syrian opposition will stay in their existing areas under the agreement.
(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)