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Turkey, Russia hold first joint patrol in Idlib

By REN QI in Moscow | China Daily | Updated: 2020-03-17 09:43
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2019. [Photo/Agencies]

Route on vital Syrian road cut short by protesters opposed to truce deal

Turkish and Russian troops began joint patrols of a vital transport artery in Syria's northeastern province of Idlib but encountered protests, the Turkish Defense Ministry said on Sunday.

Their patrols of the M4 highway were cut short in the face of protests by members of rebel groups and civilians opposed to a ceasefire agreement reached by Ankara and Moscow this month in an effort to end escalating violence in the province, the ministry said.

The opponents of the deal cut off the roadway and were reported to have set fire to tires to block the path of the patrolling troops.

The joint patrol was carried out under the deal signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 5.

"Within the framework of the Moscow agreement, the first joint Turkish-Russian land patrol on the M4 highway has been completed with the contribution of air and land elements," the Turkish Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The patrol has been completed "thanks to the measures taken as a result of the coordination" between Turkey and Russia in an effort to prevent any "possible provocations and harm to the innocent civilians" in the region, the ministry added.

Earlier, Russian news agencies reported that Moscow had sent military police and armored vehicles to bolster the patrol, which began in the settlement of Tronba in Idlib Province, the last opposition-held stronghold in the country.

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria's nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad's government and Turkey backing some rebel groups.

Both sides hope the patrols can help ease the violence in Idlib that has displaced nearly a million people and brought the two countries close to direct confrontation.

Despite these ambitions, the Russian and Turkish were forced to cut short their joint patrol.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor with activists on the ground in Syria, said the joint patrol had moved only a short distance west of the government-held town of Saraqeb before the troops' advance was stopped by the protests.

It added that extremist groups had threatened to attack the Russian forces on the highway.

The vital highway, which runs through northern Syria from the Mediterranean to the Iraqi border, has been partially closed since 2012. Work has been underway in recent days to refurbish it for traffic. Some sections of the M4 remain under rebel control, unlike the north-south M5 highway, which Syrian forces completely recaptured in the latest offensive.

For the past three days, residents along rebel-held parts of the M4 have protested against the presence of the Russian troops in the patrols because of Moscow's support for the Syrian government forces.

Syrian rebels said some civilians blocked the highway with burning tires near Nairab in southern Idlib to demonstrate their opposition to the patrol by Russian troops.

'No guarantee'

The civilians and rebels claim the cease-fire agreement involving Russia does not guarantee their resettlement after being pushed out by the violence in the province.

"If the patrols happen without people being able to return to their lands, we oppose them," said Osama Rahal, a military commander with the Syrian National Army, a Turkey-backed rebel group.

According to the media, protesters, some waving Syrian National Army flags, climbed atop Turkish tanks or stood in their path.

Photos posted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights showed people lighting fires in the street and forming human chains.

The Russian Defense Ministry later announced the patrol was cut short because of rebel "provocations" and civilians being used as human shields, forcing them to take a shorter route, according to Russian news agency RIA.

Ankara has been given more time to rein in rebels undermining the patrols, the Russian ministry added.

Turkey and Russia already conduct joint military patrols elsewhere in Syria. Following an agreement that halted Turkey's attack on Kurdish forces in October, soldiers from the two countries monitor an area of northeast Syria along the Turkish border.

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