Syrian militant group HTS refuses to withdraw from proposed Idlib buffer zone
The chief of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the main militant group in Syria's northwestern Idlib, on Saturday refused any withdrawal from a future buffer zone after a truce went into effect in the area.
"What the regime could not take militarily or by force, they will not get through peaceful means or through negotiations and politics," said Abu Mohamed al-Jolani. "We will never withdraw from the zone," he was cited by AFP as saying.
Jolani made his comments during a meeting with reporters organised by the former al-Qaeda affiliate.
On Thursday the Syrian government agreed to a truce in Idlib on condition that a Turkish-Russian buffer-zone deal was implemented, according to state news agency SANA.
Air strikes on Idlib province stopped on Thursday night, according to activist groups and sources on the ground. Local aid groups and civilians confirmed to Middle East Eye on Friday that no air strikes had taken place in since midnight.
"There have been no air strikes today," Fouad Ali, an aid worker for the Violet organisation, told MEE. "We hope that the ceasefire lasts, but from past experience we expect it to hold for a few days."
On Friday, HTS warned that it would respond to any ceasefire violations by its enemies.
Most of Idlib province and parts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia, which currently hosts three million residents, are controlled by the HTS.
The region is supposed to be protected from a massive government offensive by the Turkish-Russian deal, but it has come under increasing fire by Damascus and its backer Moscow 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 as many as 20 kilometres between the two sides, free of heavy and medium-sized weaponry.
"We will not change our position, neither at the request of our friends or our enemies," Jolani insisted, refusing any idea of a demilitarised zone.
While air strikes on Idlib stopped on Friday, fighting there since late April has killed 790 civilians, mostly in attacks by the government and Russia, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor says.
Fighting over the same period has claimed the lives of almost two thousand combatants, including 900 government loyalists, according to the monitor.
About 400,000 people have been displaced and dozens of hospitals and schools damaged, according to the United Nations.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and driven millions from their homes since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.