In four exclusive interviews with MECRA men in Idlib in northern Syria describe the ceasefire agreement that was signed in mid-September and questions over its ability to continue past the October 15 deadline for extremist groups to withdraw from the demilitarized zone. Since Turkey and Russia brokered the ceasefire the groups have said they adhered to the agreement's calls to withdraw heavy weapons from the DMZ. However questions remain about whether Russia and its Syrian regime ally will affirm the agreement is being met. Similarly Turkey faces challenges in making sure the groups stand by the agreement.
The following are exclusive interviews that were made in Idlib.*
Local council head: The agreement will succeed
Dr. Firas Alush, head of Idlib local council. "Inshallah, I am optimistic regarding the agreement both in the short and long term. What concerns fractions and groups is that they they prefer direct coordination with the Turks that will continue. Because the coordination is better than confrontation."
Dr. Firas goes on to note that "on the other hand...will this agreement succeed? I think it will. It is in everyone's interest. It is a question of whether it is in the interest of the groups and of the states that the region will be stable. The Turks won't allow insecurity on the border. They will do their best to secure the area. There is a convergence of interests. Turkey defends their borders, and they enable the life of no less than 4 million people [in Idlib].
He goes on to describe Turkey's role in Idlib. "The Turks have set observation posts. They boosted them logistically and they won't give them up easily. That's why their presence is expected for a long time in Idlib. We, the Idlib council. are suffering from the shortage of sponsorship [financial support]. We have to care for half a million people and it requires a lot of money and material support that we get from nowhere." He says that funding is "neither coming from organizations nor from other bodies. We want that whoever cares about us supports us so that we be able to enable services to civilians here. The success depends upon Allah."
Heavy weapons were withdrawn by October 10
Hasan Mihdi, a member of the Jabahat Wataniya Al-Tahrir [The National Front for Liberation**] discusses the removal of heavy weapons. "The rebels consented to remove their heavy weapons.The situation in Idlib is moving towards stability, with Allah's help. All the groups respect the agreement. Heavy weapons were removed as stipulated in the agreement. The agreement is between Turkey and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other groups. Turkey will defend Idlib but it is not about politics. The challenges that we face in Idlib are factional not political. [Note: It appears he means relations between various rebel groups when he says 'factional']
The groups say they will abide by the agreement
Abu Ahmed Ayyash, a member of Jabahat Wataniya Al-Tahrir agrees. "The situation in Idlib is clear, the groups respect the agreement including removal of heavy weapons. The relationship between Turkey and the groups is good. Also the relationship with Ha'ya [HTS]. Turkey is the most important backer of Syria's revolution. Only Allah knows whether Idlib agreement will succeed or fail. The truce can be violated at any moment. We are ready. with Allah's help. The challenges that we face is bombings of civilians by the regime and internal fighting."
Turkey, a protector of Idlib
A local sniper who goes by the name Abu El Tayyip, with an independent unit of rebel snipers discusses the withdrawal of weapons. He offers an Islamic prayer and then discusses the situation in Idlib today on October 12. "All the states are pressuring Turkey also on a political level. The pressure of the regime is military economic and political. They used to bomb and assassinate people here." He discusses the economic side of Idlib today. "Our economic situation was very bad but now Turkey entered and there is more commerce. HTS doesn't have heavy weapons any longer, including vehicles. There is only the National Front [Jabahat Wataniya Al-Tahrir and Tajamu' al-Izza. Their relations with Turkey are strong. The Turks entered Syria and there are agreements. Here is like in Bosnia and Herzegovina. or the battle of the [Assad] regime against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. We have no confidence in the regime. It is a heretic regime, we don't believe in it." He puts faith in Ankara's support. "Only Turkey can help us. All the others, like the Americans and Russians are heretics [in duwal al-kufr, states of heresy]. Turkey is the only state that defends us in Syria. It defends as as it can. Heretic states are pressuring Turkey. The Turkish economy is deteriorating. Inshallah there will be unity that we don't have now.
* MECRA fellow Alex Grinberg translated the voice recordings.
** The National Front for Liberation was founded in May with the support of Turkey, uniting Turkish-backed Faylaq al-Sham (Sham Legion) and elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA),