BEIRUT: Syria’s foreign minister said a deal to create a demilitarised zone in a northwestern rebel stronghold was a step toward “liberating” the territory, in comments aired Tuesday.
“We have expressed the hope that the Russian-Turkish agreement is a step toward the liberation of Idlib,” Walid Al-Moualem said in an interview with the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen channel.
On September 17, regime ally Moscow agreed with Ankara to create a buffer area ringing Idlib in a bid to avert a massive government blitz on the northwestern opposition bastion.
The area would be free of both militants and heavy arms by mid-October.
The deal has so far averted a massive assault on the region by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, but its implementation is expected to be complex.
Pro-Turkey rebels have cautiously accepted the deal, but some have rejected it, saying the zone would only encompass territory currently under rebel control and objecting to the presence of Russian military police.
The dominant force in the region bordering Turkey, the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance led by militants of Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, had on Saturday still not responded.
Al-Moualem said he was confident in Turkey’s ability to fulfil its side of the deal “because of its knowledge of factions” on the ground.
He said fighters from the area would be allowed to stay, while those from other areas would go home and foreigners would leave through Turkey.
Damascus has repeatedly accused its northern neighbor of backing “terrorists” and facilitating their passage into Syria.
But Al-Moualem said it would be “necessary in the future to normalize relations” between the two countries — providing Turkey withdrew its troops from Syria.
Al-Moualem also said that the Iranian ballistic missile attack on militants in eastern Syria the previous day was part of “legitimate” cooperation between the two countries to combat terrorism.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard launched six ballistic missiles as well as drone bombers toward Syria’s Deir Ezzor province on Monday, targeting Daesh militants it blamed for an attack on a military parade in Iran last month.
The strikes were seen as a warning to Iran’s regional adversaries at a time when its nuclear deal with world powers is coming unraveled.
“The Iranian missiles are in the framework of combatting terrorism,” said Al-Moualem.
The Syrian government and its allies, as well as the US-led coalition, are separately battling Daesh, which still controls a sliver of land along Syria’s border with Iraq.
US military spokesman Col. Sean Ryan told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that the Iranian missiles “potentially jeopardize the forces on the ground that are actually fighting (Daesh) and puts them in danger.”
Ryan said US forces were not in danger during the attack, “but any time anyone just fires missiles through uncoordinated air space, it’s a threat.” He said the military was “still assessing” how many Iranian missiles were fired.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said its strikes killed some 40 militant leaders.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajjizadeh, head of the Guard’s aerospace division, identified one of the dead as the Daesh commander of its Mosul district, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
The Guard also published pictures it described as the targets hit, which appeared to be villas. It described the attack as “precision” strikes.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said the strikes killed eight people in Hajjin, a town still controlled by Daesh. It was not clear if all those killed were militants, the Observatory said, adding that one of the missiles hit a house that had been seized by Daesh.
The US military’s Central Command acknowledged that Iranian forces conducted “no-notice strikes” in the area Monday and said it was assessing the damage.
In a separate development, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Syria has been completed.
He said Russia has delivered four S-300 launchers along with radars and support vehicles, and that it will take three months to train Syrian personnel to operate the system.
Russia announced last month that it would provide the S-300s after the downing of a Russian plane by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli air strike, a friendly fire incident that stoked regional tensions.
Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and its intervention in the civil war, beginning in 2015, turned the tide in his favor.
The Syrian foreign minister declined to say whether Syria would use the S-300 systems to protect Lebanon’s air space, from which Israeli warplanes have attacked Syria.
“What I can confirm is that we will resist and retaliate against anyone that targets Syria no matter where they come from,” Al-Moualem said.
In southern Syria, meanwhile, Daesh militants shot dead a woman they had kidnapped along with dozens other women and children in July when they attacked the main city and nearby villages in Sweida province.
The Observatory and the Sweida 24, an activist collective, did not say when the 25-year-old woman was killed. Sweida 24 said the woman’s parents were killed in the July attack, adding that Daesh threatened to kill more hostages it is holding if their demands are not met.
Some 30 women and children have been held since the July 25 attack, which left more than 200 people dead. Negotiations have been underway to exchange the hostages for Daesh fighters held by the government.
Shortly after the kidnapping, Daesh killed one of the hostages, a 19-year-old man, to pressure the government and local officials in the negotiations. A woman held by the extremists died of natural causes.