Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has said that the Sochi deal negotiated between ally Russia and opposition-backer Turkey is a “temporary one”, and that the government’s objective to control all of Syria remains the same.
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Speaking at a meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Baath Arab Socialist Party yesterday, Assad claimed that the Syrian regime would foil all foreign plans against the country.
“The agreement is a temporary measure through which the state has realised many achievements on the ground,” state media outlet SANA reported Assad as saying.
“The position of the Syrian state is clear. This province and other Syrian territories remaining under the control of terrorists will return to the Syrian state [control].”
Assad added that international objections to an offensive on the northern Syrian province home to over three million people were simply “hysterical”, and that Syria would engage in a “battle” to rehabilitate segments of society that supported “chaos and terrorism”.
The comments echoed those made by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov on Saturday, who stated the Idlib agreement was temporary and had been formulated to achieve the goal of eradicating militants who do not lay down their weapons.
“The terrorists who refuse to lay down their weapons will be captured or eliminated,” he said. “Russia is seeking to cooperate with the Syrian regime to control the province [in the long term].”
Observers believe that the Assad regime and Russia are trying to gain time with the agreement, and restructure a military force capable of fighting in Idlib and the surrounding countryside. Reuters reported yesterday that the Turkish backed opposition group the National Liberation Front (NLF) had started to withdraw heavy weaponry from a demilitarised zone as per the agreement negotiated by Russia and Turkey in Sochi last month. However, in a statement released by the group, it affirmed that its fighters would remain in their positions amid growing resistance to the conditions of the deal.
“Our forces will remain on the front lines in defence positions armed with light and medium weapons,” NLF spokesman Naji Al-Mustafa said. “Heavy weapons are mostly … in our bases. So the factions will maintain their readiness to fight in these areas in case of any emergency.”
Last week, fighting factions Faylaaq Ash-Shaam and Jaysh Izza stated that they had not removed their weaponry from the buffer zone, with the latter withdrawing its support for the Sochi deal entirely.
The biggest opposition group in Idlib, Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam, also has yet to announce its position regarding the agreement, with members reportedly split on whether to side with Turkish demands.
Whilst the Sochi deal was initially met positively on both sides of the conflict, optimism has drained following revelations that the 15 to 20 kilometre buffer zone was to be absorbed entirely by opposition-held territory in Idlib, with no military withdrawal on the part of the regime.
Skirmishes have also continued to take place between forces allied to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and opposition groups, with irregular shelling in Aleppo and Hama in the past week, despite the agreement stipulating a total ceasefire.
Erdogan has repeatedly vowed that Turkey will tackle factions designated as terrorist groups by Russia, and has been exerting pressure for opposition groups to comply with the conditions of the agreements.
Last week, a source from the Free Syrian Army told reporters that Turkish intelligence services ordered the factions to deliver reports on all of their troops and an inventory of all types of weaponry. A campaign of assassinations of senior opposition commanders that started earlier this year has also continued, with suspicions of Turkish involvement.