Syrian rebels of the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front reposition a tank on October 9, 2018 after moving it from territory earmarked for a buffer zone between rebel and government forces
Beirut (AFP) - A horseshoe-shaped demilitarised zone around Syria's opposition stronghold of Idlib is aimed at averting a massive government assault on the area, but its implementation has been riddled with challenges.
The buffer, agreed by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey last month, was meant to be free of jihadists by October 15 but they continue to occupy the zone, throwing the deal into doubt.
Here is how the events unfolded:
- 'Bloodbath' -
After a string of Russian-backed victories this year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad set his sights on Idlib, the largest piece of territory still held by Syria's beleaguered rebels.
For weeks, regime forces massed on the edges of the province, stepping up bombardment since early September and dropping leaflets calling on residents to surrender.
That prompted a chorus of international warnings against an offensive.
US President Donald Trump cautioned that "the world is watching", as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he feared a "bloodbath".
On September 10, the United Nations warned that an assault could create the century's "worst humanitarian catastrophe".
A day later, its Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that Idlib "must not be transformed into a bloodbath".
- Russia-Turkey accord -
On September 17, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi and agreed to create a 15-20 kilometre (nine to 12 mile) buffer zone around the Idlib region.
According to the deal, the zone would separate rebel and regime zones and would be monitored by the two sponsor countries.
The buffer would include parts of Idlib province and the neighbouring regions of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia.
All factions in the planned demilitarised area were to hand over their heavy weapons by October 10, and radical groups were expected to withdraw by October 15, according to the agreement.
- Rebel, jihadist reactions -
On September 23, the National Liberation Front (NLF), a powerful Turkish-backed rebel alliance in Idlib, cautiously welcomed the deal.
But it later said it was opposed to the deployment of Russian forces in the buffer, and said Ankara promised them that patrols by Moscow would be dropped.
On September 29, Jaysh al-Izza, a formerly US-backed Syrian rebel group active in northern Hama province, rejected the deal and said the buffer should be carved out equally from rebel and regime zones.
The most powerful force in Idlib, an alliance known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that is led by former Al-Qaeda members, has not commented on the deal.
Hurras al-Deen, an even more hardline faction, has rejected it.
HTS, Hurras al-Deen, and other jihadists control more than half of the planned buffer zone, making their compliance key to the deal's success.
- Arms pullout -
Despite their different positions, rebels and jihadists were reported to have completed the first task of removing heavy arms on time.
On October 8, the NLF said it had finished withdrawing heavy weapons from the planned buffer zone.
The following day, on the eve of the deadline, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said HTS and "other less influential jihadist groups" also removed heavy arms from large parts of the demilitarised area.
On October 10, Turkey announced that the pullout was "complete".
- Deal threatened -
On October 12, Syria's army sent text messages to residents in the planned buffer area, telling them: "Get away from the fighters. Their fate is sealed and near."
The next day opposition fighters launched two mortar attacks on regime positions from within the buffer zone, killing two Syrian soldiers in Hama, according to the Observatory.
On October 14, hours before the second deadline for jihadists to withdraw, Idlib's HTS vowed to continue fighting.
"We have not abandoned our choice of jihad and fighting towards implementing our blessed revolution," said HTS.
The deadline for the jihadist withdrawal passed without any of the hardliners leaving the zone, a war monitor said.
On October 15, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said the regime was waiting for its ally Russia to determine whether or not the Idlib deal was fulfilled.