A deal to set up a demilitarised zone in Syria’s Idlib province has prevented a “humanitarian crisis”, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.
He agreed the plan with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Monday after fears of a civilian bloodbath if Syrian forces had tried to capture Idlib – the last stronghold of rebel fighters.
Rebel forces have welcomed the agreement, saying it ends President Bashar al Assad’s push to retake the whole of Syria.
The Syrian regime, however, has pledged to continue its fight for “the last inch of Syrian land”.
Idlib is home to three million people – half of them displaced from other areas of the war-torn country – and is home to an estimated 60,000 fighters from various groups.
An imminent major assault appears to have been averted, with the plan laying down demilitarised zone between nine and 12 miles deep to keep government and rebel forces apart.
It will be set up by 15 October.
Ankara was desperate to prevent President Assad laying siege to Idlib and the prospect of thousands more refugees heading for his country’s border with Turkey.
Four hours of talks between the Russian and Turkish leaders in Sochi sealed the deal, which Mr Putin said would be enforced by Turkish forces and Russian military police.
As part of the deal “all radical fighters” will have to withdraw from Idlib, including the Nusra front, said the Russian leader.
It also stipulates the removal of their heavy weaponry, including tanks and rocket systems.
Mr Erdogan said: “I believe that with this agreement we prevented a humanitarian crisis in Idlib.”
International agencies, including the United Nations, had warned that military action would have caused some of the worst suffering of the Syrian war.
Syria’s foreign ministry welcomed the agreement, which it said it was heavily involved in.
It pledged to continue fighting the “terrorists” to liberate “the last inch of Syrian land, whether by military operations or local reconciliation”.
Opposition officials also praised the deal and said it would stop President Assad from achieving his aim of regaining control of the whole of the country.
“The Idlib deal preserves lives of civilians and their direct targeting by the regime. It buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria,” said Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army official.
Iran – another of President Assad’s backers in the war – said the agreement was “an important and essential step for removing the remaining terrorists in Syria”.