Idlib buffer zone deal
Assad calls for progress in stalled talks
President Bashar al-Assad Â® meeting with Russian diplomat Alexander Lavrentiev in Damascus on Friday.
AFP, Damascus :
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday called for progress on a stalled buffer zone deal around jihadist-dominated Idlib region ahead of fresh talks aimed at ending his country's eight-year war.
Assad met envoy Alexander Lavrentiev from key ally Russia in Damascus to discuss the negotiations due April 25-26 in Kazakhstan.
Iran and Russia are the major supporters of the Syrian regime, and along with rebel backer Turkey have sponsored repeated rounds of talks in the Central Asian nation.
Moscow and Ankara in September inked a buffer zone deal to prevent a massive regime offensive on the Idlib region, near the Turkish border.
But the deal has unwound as former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham took full control of the region in January, and the area has come under increasing bombardment.
Assad insisted at the meeting Friday that "obstacles" blocking the full implementation of the deal be removed, the presidency wrote on Facebook.
He said the main aim of the accord was to "eliminate terrorist groups", as jihadist fighters have failed to pull out of the specified areas.
The UN has expressed concern over escalating violence in Idlib, warning that the flare-up is threatening aid deliveries to some 2.7 million people in need.
More than 86,500 people fled their homes in February and March as a result of the surge in violence, it said.
Assad has managed to claw back some two thirds of the country since Russia launched a military intervention in 2015, but Idlib remains beyond regime control. Syria's Al-Watan newspaper reported that Lavrentiev had delivered to Assad a "positive Saudi initiative" after visiting the kingdom, but gave no further details.
Syrian officials made no comment on the report.
Riyadh has been a key opponent of Assad, but following the regime victories on the battlefield there has been a warming up of relations between Damascus and some of its Arab neighbours.
The Russian foreign ministry said that the meeting with Assad discussed "ensuring long-term political regulation" and "Syria's post-conflict reconstruction and normalisation of Syria's relations with Arab countries".
Syria's war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since the conflict began with the repression of anti-government protests in 2011.
Turkey and Russia brokered a deal in September 2018 to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib that would be evacuated of all heavy weapons and militants.
Assad's meeting with the Russian diplomat came ahead of fresh Syria talks aimed at ending the conflict in the war-torn country. The new round of Syria negotiations are scheduled to be held on April 25 and 26 in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.
The Syrian president's call for progress in talks and elimination of terrorist groups holed up in Idlib comes as the situation in the militant-held province is being described as "dangerous".
"The situation in the Syrian province [of Idlib] is very dangerous, and the Nusra Front terrorist group - which is not part of a de-escalation zone - is controlling a majority of the province's regions," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned last month.Russia has also warned that al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists and the Western-backed White Helmets "aid" group are gearing up for a false flag chemical attack in Idlib, the last major militant stronghold in the Arab state.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Thursday that terrorists with the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, better known as al-Nusra Front, "along with the White Helmets, are preparing for further provocations aimed at accusing the legitimate government in Syria of using poisonous substances."Idlib, located in northwestern Syria, remains the only large area in the hands of anti-Damascus militants after government forces-backed by Iran and Russia-managed to undo militant gains across the country and bring back almost all of Syrian soil under government control.