BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s main jihadist group signalled on Sunday it would abide by the terms of a Russian-Turkish deal to prevent a Syrian government offensive on rebel-held Idlib the day before a critical deadline.
Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance spearheaded by al Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate previously known as the Nusra Front, said it had adopted its stance after taking time for “consultation”.
Although it did not explicitly say it would abide by the deal, it said it would seek to provide security for people in the area it controls and that it appreciated efforts to protect that area, an apparent reference to Turkey.
“We value the efforts of all those striving – at home and abroad – to protect the liberated area and prevent its invasion and the perpetration of massacres in it,” Tahrir al-Sham said in its statement.
“But we warn at the same time against the trickery of the Russian occupier or having faith in its intentions,” it added. The group also said it “would not forget” the foreign fighters who came to assist it.
Idlib’s other main rebel faction, a Turkish-aligned alliance of groups known as the National Liberation Front, has already expressed its support for the agreement.
The deal sets up a demilitarised zone running 15-20 km (9-13 miles) deep into rebel territory that must be evacuated of all heavy weapons and all jihadist groups by Monday, Oct. 15.
Turkey has been working to persuade Tahrir al-Sham to comply with the agreement, which it arranged with the Syrian government’s main ally Russia to avert an assault that it feared would send a new wave of refugees towards its border.
However, Tahrir al-Sham also said in its statement, issued via its social media channels, that it would not end its jihad or hand over its weapons.
Idlib and adjacent areas are the last stronghold of rebels who rose against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. It is also home to an estimated 3 million people, more than half of whom have already been displaced at least once during the war.
Last week Turkey said the demilitarised zone had been set up, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the zone was effective and no large scale military actions were planned in Idlib.
Russian and Turkish troops will eventually patrol the zone, according to their agreement.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; editing by David Stamp and Sandra Maler)