The main jihadist group in Syria’s last rebel stronghold of Idlib province vowed Sunday to continue to fight, hours before a deadline for them to leave a buffer zone as set out under a Russian-Turkish deal.
“We have not abandoned our choice of jihad and fighting towards implementing our blessed revolution,” said Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance led by the jihadists of Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate.
Its statement came just hours before a midnight deadline for HTS and other jihadists to leave a demilitarised zone planned as part of a deal reached last month between regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.
The accord is only the latest in a string of truces throughout Syria’s seven-year war, which has killed more than 360,000 and displaced millions.
It calls for setting up a horseshoe-shaped buffer zone around the Idlib region, in northwestern Syria, which would be free of heavy arms by October 10 and of “radical fighters” by Sunday at midnight.
But with just hours to go, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor and an AFP correspondent in Idlib said there was still no sign that they had left.
Deadly mortar rounds fired late Saturday from the planned buffer zone, according to the Britain-based monitor, appeared to indicate the first part of the deal was not fully implemented.
“In a few hours, the buffer zone is supposed to enter into force, but the deal has not yet been implemented,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory.
Late Saturday, “heavy mortar shells” were fired from the planned buffer area into regime territory, killing two soldiers, the monitor said.
– Rebel mortar fire –
Rebels and jihadists had reportedly fulfilled the first part of the deal, with Turkish officials, armed factions and the Observatory reporting that the area was free of heavy-duty weaponry.
But the shells which Saturday hit an army position in Hama province appear to have violated the accord.
“This is the first clear violation of the deal since the heavy weapons were withdrawn. This area is supposed to be clear of heavy weapons, including mortar shells,” Abdel Rahman said.
He said intermittent regime shelling had been hitting the planned buffer for days, but the deal does not require government forces to withdraw any of their weapons.
On Sunday evening, regime shelling hit an area in the west of the planned buffer zone, in the northwest of Hama province, Abdel Rahman said.
Syrian pro-regime daily Al-Watan also reported rebel shelling, saying on Sunday that western parts of Aleppo province were being hit with “rocket fire and shelling with heavy weapons, which were supposed to be pulled out from the area”.
And an AFP correspondent in western Aleppo reported mortar fire in the area after several days of quiet.
The Observatory said it was unclear which groups fired the mortars late Saturday, as both the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front and rival jihadist factions were present in the area.
The NLF — which holds just under half of the Idlib region and has welcomed the accord — did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment on the shelling.
– ‘Vast ramifications’ –
The lion’s share of Idlib is held by HTS, as well as more hardline jihadists like Hurras al-Deen and Ansar al-Islam.
Those fighters also control more than two-thirds of the planned buffer zone and are supposed to withdraw by Monday.
Hurras al-Deen has publicly rejected the agreement, although it apparently withdrew its heavy arms from the area last week.
HTS, widely considered the most powerful force in Idlib, had quietly abided by the deal’s first deadline and re-stationed heavy arms elsewhere.
But getting them to agree to the second part of the deal has proven more difficult.
In a recent report for the Turkey-based Omran Center, expert Nawar Oliver described HTS’s approval as the deal’s ultimate “test”.
“If HTS acts as a spoiler to the agreement on the ground, this will probably lead to one of two scenarios: either Turkey and the NLF launch military action against HTS, or Russia will seize the opportunity with the support of the regime and its allies to enter Idlib,” he said.
“The ramifications of that move could be vast,” he added.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other top government officials have warned that the Idlib deal was only a “temporary” measure.
On Friday, residents around Idlib received warning messages on their mobile phones from the Syrian army.
“Get away from the fighters. Their fate is sealed and near,” one said.