Turkey Moves to Secure Syria Buffer Zone Under Deal With Russia

(Bloomberg) -- Syrian rebels removed their last heavy weapons from a demilitarized zone separating them from pro-government forces on Monday, according to a Turkish news agency, a key step in a deal struck to avoid a potentially catastrophic conflict in the country’s northwest.

Grad missile launchers, mortars and guns held by rebel fighters -- many from jihadist groups -- have been withdrawn from the designated safe area in Syria’s Idlib province, state-run Anadolu Agency said, citing Turkish officials overseeing the process as well as rebels.

Turkey’s army is deploying armored cars to patrol the zone under the accord reached with Russia last month, the agency reported. The agreement called for a buffer between 15 to 20 kilometers (9 to 12 miles) wide to be established by Oct. 15. All heavy weapons were to be removed by Oct. 10.

The prospect of an imminent offensive on Syria’s last rebel-held territory by President Bashar al-Assad’s army and his Iranian allies alarmed Turkey, which feared another wave of refugees flooding across its border. Russia, Assad’s main backer, at first rejected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for a ceasefire but later relented. That left Turkey with the burden of dealing with jihadists holed up in the region.

“There are thousands of foreign terrorists among them and no country wants them to return to their homes,” Erol Basaran Bural, an ex-Turkish army officer and analyst with Ankara’s 21st Century Institute, said in an interview. “Most of the al-Qaeda-linked extremists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are Syrians and most probably they will not leave Syrian terrain and that could seriously complicate” Turkey’s task, he said.

Erdogan is a fierce opponent of Assad, a position that aligned him with the U.S. earlier in Syria’s seven-year war. But after Russian intervention in 2015 turned the tide in Assad’s favor, Erdogan began to change course. In the past year he’s worked closely with Putin and Iran on plans to end the war -- while relations with the U.S. deteriorated.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.