The Syrian government has agreed to a truce in the northwestern region of Idlib on condition that a Turkish-Russian buffer zone deal is implemented, according to Syria’s state news agency, SANA.
Thursday’s announcement, which follows weeks of heavy bombardment in the region of some three million residents, came as talks resumed in Kazakhstan between rebel-backer Turkey and Syrian government allies, Russia and Iran.
SANA cited a Syrian military source who announced the government’s “approval for a ceasefire in the de-escalation zone in Idlib starting from tonight”, on the condition that rebels withdraw forces and weaponry from a buffer zone based on a September accord struck in the Russian resort of Sochi.
The Sochi agreement provides that the buffer zone in a 15 to 20 square kilometer area is supposed to separate Syrian troops and rebels in Idlib, and will be monitored by Russian and Turkish troops.
Most of Idlib province and parts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia are controlled by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, an armed group led by Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate.
The region is supposed to be protected from a massive government offensive by the Turkish-Russian deal struck in September in the Russian resort of Sochi.
But the deal has faltered and Syrian forces, along with Russia, have stepped up their bombardment there since the end of April.
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accused Turkey of dragging its feet in implementing the deal, which provided for a buffer zone of up to 20km between the two sides, free of heavy and medium-sized weaponry.
Russia welcomed the decision, Moscow’s Syria envoy said.
“Of course, we welcome the Syrian government’s decision to introduce a truce,” Alexander Lavrentyev was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency after the first day of peace talks in the Kazakh capital Nur Sultan.
Earlier on Thursday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ordered an investigation into the destruction of hospitals, schools and other facilities in Idlib, the last major rebel-held area in Syria.
An internal board of inquiry will investigate the “destruction of or damage to facilities on the deconfliction list and UN-supported facilities in the area,” a statement issued by Guterres’s office said.
It also called on all parties involved to cooperate with the board once it has been established.
The statement issued by Guterres cited a series of incidents in northwestern Syria since Russia and Turkey signed a memorandum in September 2018 on the stabilization of the Idlib de-escalation zone.
Russian and Syrian planes have continued to attack rebel areas around Idlib. Hospitals, schools and other institutions have been hit.
The United Nations has grown increasingly worried that the sharing of their geographic coordinates with the warring factions, which the UN did with the intention of protecting civilian infrastructure, has resulted in the deliberate earmarking of the facilities.
Last week, the government intensified its air raids on rebel-held areas, especially in the province of Idlib.
Major General Hasan Hasan, head of the Syrian army’s political bureau, said on Thursday that “the military path to eliminate terrorism in the north is ongoing”.
He told the pro-government al-Watan newspaper that it would be good if Moscow or Tehran could find a solution through talks with Ankara, which has forces stationed in the northwest.
“But at the same time, when matters reach a dead end, then the Syria-Arab army, which cleansed all these vast areas … will not stop at all, neither at Idlib nor at any area,” he said.