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War-weary Syrians eye Idlib deal with uneasy relief

© AFP | Syrians dance, chant slogans and strike drums while others and wave flags of Turkey and the opposition, as they protest against the Syrian government during a demonstration in Binnish in the rebel-held northern Idlib province on September 17, 2018

BINNISH (SYRIA) (AFP) - 

A Russian-Turkish deal over Idlib has been met with distrust from war-weary Syrians in the rebel bastion. While relieved a regime offensive appears off the table, they have little faith Moscow or Damascus will uphold it.

Moments after Russia and Turkey announced they would create a "de-militarised zone" ringing Idlib, hundreds of people descended into the streets of the northwestern province.

Arriving on foot or by motorcycle, they brandished the three-star flag of the uprising, which broke out in 2011 with demands for President Bashar al-Assad's ouster.

Although the new agreement seems to have averted for now the "bloodbath" that many feared could happen in Idlib, protesters say it does not go far enough.

"It's a partial solution," said Staif al-Ahmad, 27.

The father of two said that at the very least, he was glad the bombardment by Russian warplanes and regime artillery may stop for a period under the deal.

"It's true it will protect civilians from bombing and air strikes," said Ahmad.

For several weeks, Assad's troops have been amassing around the peripheries of Idlib, sending ominous air strikes and artillery slamming into rebel positions as both Syrian and Russian officials beat the drums of war.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said around 50 people had been killed in Idlib and surrounding areas by Syrian and Russian bombing raids, barrel bombs, and artillery fire since mid-August.

- 'Nothing but numbers' -

"It soothes us to know there won't be a battle in Idlib," said Mahmoud Rafaat, 34.

"It's reassuring for civilians that the bombing on residential areas and schools will stop," the father of three told AFP.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 360,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes to other areas or across the border to neighbouring countries.

Idlib province and surrounding rebel zones are home to some three million people, around half of them displaced from other battered zones.

"For eight years, we civilians have paid the price of all the battles in Syria. There are always massacres and new victims. We're nothing but numbers that are tallied up," Rafaat said.

The United Nations had called on the conflict's powerbrokers to reach an agreement over Idlib that would spare civilian lives.

After a flurry of diplomatic activity, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled the Idlib deal Monday from the Russian coastal town of Sochi.

Under the deal, whose details remain sketchy, Turkey would create a demilitarised zone of 15-20 kilometres by October 15.

All jihadists and heavy weapons would have to withdraw from the buffer, which would be secured by Turkish forces and Russian military police.

Idlib's residents are uneasy about the agreement.

In rebel-held Binnish, hundreds of protesters gathered in a square lined by buildings ripped apart by years of regime and Russian bombardment.

Most waved the three-star flag of the Syrian uprising, although Turkish flags were also visible.

"The people want the downfall of the regime!" screamed the demonstrators, followed by: "Freedom! Freedom!"

- 'Doesn't solve the problem' -

Abu Yazan al-Homsi, a media activist taking part in the protest, told AFP he wanted to "thank Turkey".

"It prevented a military offensive against Idlib," he said.

But the spectre of an eventual attack still worried him, particularly if rebels are to lose their weapons.

"If they take our arms today, who will guarantee that the regime and Russia won't attack us," Abu Yazan asked.

"Erdogan, is it you who will protect us?"

Defiance was in the air. Protesters pounded on drums and danced the upbeat Middle Eastern dabkeh while holding up signs that read, "We won't forget. We won't reconcile."

Wassim Sweid, another protester, said Idlib's residents deserved more.

"The decision that came out was just a partial one. It doesn't solve the Syrian people's problem," Sweid said.

"Creating a 15-kilometres zone is not a demand of the Syrian people, which has been demanding the regime's downfall since day one," he added.

"In my opinion, this agreement will not put a stop to the shelling."

Dozens of kilometres to the north, in a remote village near the Turkish border, Mohammad Saleh said he was suspicious about the deal.

"I think Russia's got malicious intentions," he said.

"First they'll take the heavy weapons, then they'll betray Turkey. We're used to Russia's betrayals."

© 2018 AFP