Syria’s war-ravaged northwest woke up to relative calm Friday, its skies free of warplanes for the first day in months, following a Russian-Turkish ceasefire deal.
The agreement raised hopes of an end to one of the bloodiest phases in the conflict but residents in Idlib were sceptical this deal would last longer than previous ones.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group and AFP correspondents in Idlib province said the truce that came into force at midnight appeared to be holding.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman reported “a complete absence of regime and Russian warplanes in the Idlib airspace”.
He said an exchange of fire before dawn killed six regime fighters and nine members of the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uighur-dominated jihadist group, but in general belligerents seemed to be observing the ceasefire.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached a deal after hours of talks in Moscow on Thursday.
The agreement will create a security corridor along the key M4 highway in northern Syria, where Turkish and Russian forces will launch joint patrols later this month.
Putin told a joint news conference after the talks that the agreement would “serve as a good basis for ending fighting” in Idlib and for “stopping the suffering of the civilian population”.
A Russian-backed government offensive on the last rebel bastion in the country has killed hundreds of civilians since December and displaced close to a million people.
– Residents wary –
European and UN officials welcomed the Moscow deal and said they hoped to see a lasting cessation of hostilities, but residents of the conflict-torn region had low expectations.
Ahmad Qaddour, a 29-year-old who lives in a displacement camp with his wife and two children, said he had learned to always expect the worst.
“We do not have any confidence in the regime and Russia regarding this ceasefire,” he said.
The crisis that the three-month regime offensive has sparked on Turkey’s doorstep has been described by the United Nations as the worst humanitarian emergency yet since the start of the war in 2011.
Tensions had risen in recent weeks between Damascus and Turkey, which has had troops in northern Syria since 2016 and backs rebel groups.
A regime strike last month in Idlib resulted in the deaths of 34 Turkish soldiers, the heaviest loss of personnel for Ankara since its military intervention in Syria.
Turkey’s reply has been bruising, with devastating drone and rocket strikes destroying regime positions and military equipment and killing dozens of government troops.
– Turkish buffer hopes –
The joint Russian-Turkish patrols will operate between the village of Tronba in Idlib and a village in Latakia province, a regime stronghold.
The M4 highway runs roughly parallel to Syria’s northern border with Turkey, from northeastern Kurdish-controlled regions to the Mediterranean coast.
The segment affected by the deal reached in Moscow lies mostly in Idlib province and marks the rough border of a buffer zone Turkey would like to create inside Syria.
Damascus has always insisted it wants to reclaim all the land it lost to rebels in the early days of the war, a position backed by Moscow.
Turkey however wants to maintain its influence in northern Syria by deploying its forces and proxies in a buffer zone about 30 kilometres deep along the entire border.
The patrols decided on Thursday in Moscow, the first time Russian and Turkish forces will operate jointly in Idlib, are due to start on March 15.
On that day, the conflict that has killed close to 400,000 people and displaced half of the population of Syria will enter its 10th year.
Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country. It wants to avoid a fresh influx of people fleeing the conflict in Idlib and keep recently displaced people on the Syrian side of the border.
A move to open its borders with Greece to refugees seeking to flee to the European Union has drawn accusations that Ankara was resorting to the most cynical form of blackmail.
The rush to EU borders witnessed in recent days has sent Brussels into a panic, with EU member states promptly offering Turkey millions in aid to help it cope with the burden of refugees.