The National Liberation Front (NLF) announced on Saturday it has begun withdrawing heavy arms from the demilitarised zone as part of an agreement between Russia, which is a Syrian government ally, and Turkey.
“We began to withdraw our heavy weapons from the demilitarised zone to rear positions,” NLF spokesperson Naji Mustafa told AFP news agency.
“The operation will last several days,” he said, adding that the weapons will be held by fighters deployed in positions outside the buffer zone.
The agreement, signed on September 17 in Russia’s Sochi, aims to stave off a large-scale government assault on Idlib province, the last major rebel-held bastion in Syria, by creating a 15-20km buffer zone ringing the area.
The United Nations has warned that an attack on Idlib would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the region, home to about three million people.
Security in the area will be overseen by Turkish forces and Russian military police, according to the deal.
Moscow said the demilitarised zone would help stop attacks from Idlib on Syrian army positions and Russia’s military bases in the region.
Under the deal, all rebel factions in the demilitarised zone must withdraw heavy arms by Wednesday. It also requires “withdrawal of all radical fighters” from the area by October 15.
This includes Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is dominated by a rebel faction previously known as al-Nusra Front before it renounced its ties to al-Qaeda.
The NLF is the main Turkey-backed rebel alliance in the Idlib region, but HTS, which has yet to announce its stance on the agreement, controls about 60 percent of the province.
On Saturday, a media spokesman for Faylaq al-Sham, one of the NLF factions, confirmed the withdrawal of arms. Seif Raad said it included pulling back missile launchers, tanks and mortars.
Turkey has, in recent weeks, deployed troops to “observation posts” it set up in rebel-held areas of Idlib and the neighbouring province of Aleppo.
Turkey sent troops to Syria in August 2016 to clear a border area of fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also referred to as ISIS).
Later this month, Turkey, Germany, Russia and France are expected to meet at a four-way summit to discuss the Idlib situation.