Aid groups worried as Idlib deadline looms

BEIRUT: Aid agencies on Friday warned of dire humanitarian consequences if a Russia-Turkey deal to avert a regime assault on Syria’s last major opposition stronghold was not fully implemented within days.

Regime ally Russia and opposition backer Turkey agreed last month to set up a buffer zone around the northwestern region of Idlib to separate jihadist and militants inside from regime fighters massing on its edges.

Under the accord, militants have until Monday to withdraw from the buffer zone semi-circling the region of some 3 million people, but have not yet shown any sign of moving.

On Friday, international aid groups working in Idlib warned that failure to implement the deal could spark renewed violence and trigger mass displacement.

Local partner organizations and “civilians receiving aid have expressed fears that violence could spiral out of control in the next few days if either the deal collapses or fighting escalates in areas not covered by it,” they said.

“Even a limited military offensive would displace hundreds of thousands of people,” CARE International, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Mercy Corps and Save the Children said in a statement.

Nearly half of the people living in Idlib have fled from their homes in other parts of the war-torn country, according to the UN, and many already depend on aid.

“If this deal falls short and military operations start, many hundreds of thousands will struggle to get the help they will so badly need,” warned Lorraine Bramwell, IRC’s Syria country director.

For the agreement to be implemented, Idlib’s dominant force, an alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, and other militants must withdraw from the planned buffer zone by Monday.

But the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance has not yet officially responded to the deal, and a Britain-based war monitor said on Friday that no militant had withdrawn yet from the buffer zone.

“There has been no withdrawal of any members of the jihadist factions with their light weapons,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

An AFP correspondent said that residents in the area received warning messages Friday on their mobile phones from the regime army.

“Get away from the fighters. Their fate is sealed and near,” one said.

“Don’t allow the terrorists to take you as human shields,” said another, addressed to residents of the planned buffer zone.

HTS jihadists from the Turkestan Islamic Party and current Al-Qaeda outfit Hurras Al-Deen control more than two-thirds of the expected demilitarised zone.

Separately, sources said that Yarmouk camp in the Damascus suburbs has been emptied of its inhabitants and pounded to rubble in Syria’s seven-year war.

But five months after regime forces expelled the last opposition fighters in the area, Assad troops now stand guard at the camp’s entrance, wearing face masks to protect themselves against the dust billowing up into the air.

On a narrow street inside the camp where he grew up, Palestinian Mahmud Khaled has returned to help oversee bulldozers and diggers engaged in joint Palestinian-Syrian clean-up operations.

“When we first entered, we were horrified by what we saw,” said the 56-year-old engineer, wearing a light grey and white checkered shirt.

“But after we started the clean-up, it all started to look up,” Khaled said.

Off Yarmuk’s main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting.

Some have been reduced to mountains of grey rubble and mangled rebar. In others, entire floors dangle dangerously downwards, their steel rods jutting out.

“We have shifted 50,000 cubic meters of rubble and reopened all the main roads,” Khaled said.

But “it will be a while before families can come back,” he added.

As Khaled surveyed the neighborhood, a yellow bulldozer spilled rubble into a large red truck behind him.

Tens of thousands have fled Yarmuk since Syria’s conflict started in 2011 and regime forces imposed a crippling siege on the then opposition-held camp a year later.

Since the latest round of fighting to expel Daesh ended in May, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said no residents have been allowed to return.

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