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Truce brings some relief but no joy for Syrians in Idlib

BEIRUT – For the first time in three months, Omar Zaqzaq says he and his family slept through the entire night, without an airstrike or artillery shell jolting them out of bed.

Idlib's skies were completely free of Russian and Syrian government warplanes Friday as a cease-fire deal took hold in Syria's northwestern province, the last rebel stronghold.

The truce, brokered by Turkey and Russia, halted a terrifying three-month air and ground campaign that killed hundreds and sent 1 million people fleeing toward the Turkish border.

But there is no joy among residents of the province or for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who say they won't be returning to their homes anytime soon.

"The truce is only a chance for the two sides to catch their breath" said Zaqzaq, who lives in the rebel-held town of Binnish, along with his wife, 5-year-old daughter Maria and 3-year-old son Akef. “It's a very fragile truce and I don't think it will last long.”

The agreement, announced Thursday after a six-hour meeting between the Turkish and Russian presidents in Moscow, essentially froze the conflict lines in Idlib. It does not force Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces to roll back significant military gains made in Russian-backed offensive for the past three months — a key Turkish demand prior to the talks.

That effectively rules out the possibility of hundreds of thousands of displaced people returning to their homes, now under Assad's control.

“If we wanted to live under their mercy (Russia and Syrian government) we would have stayed there,” said Alaa Turki Hammam, a 25-year-old who fled his home near Marat al-Numan and is now at a camp west of the mountainous town of Haranabush near the Turkish border.

“Now, after this meeting, we have lost even one percent hope that we would return to our homes,” he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan each back opposing sides in the conflict and have become the main power brokers in the war-torn country.

The deal announced in Moscow is the latest of many cease-fire agreements for Idlib in recent years. All have ended up unraveling after few months, triggering new government offensives that captured more territory from the opposition. Government forces now control much of Syria after evicting rebels from other parts of country.

The cease-fire deal appears to achieve Moscow's key goal of allowing the Syrian government to keep control of the north-south highway known as the M5. Syrian forces captured its last segments in the latest offensive.

The deal sets up a security corridor along the M4, a key east-west highway in Idlib. According to the accord, published in Syrian pro-government media, Russian and Turkish troops are supposed to begin joint patrols on the M4 on March 15.

The deal lacked specifics or a known mechanism to enforce the truce, saying that details related to the security corridor along the M4 will be worked out by Russian and Turkish officials within a week.

Under a Russia-Turkey agreement reached in the summer of 2018, the two highways were supposed to be opened before the end of that year. But rejection of the deal by al-Qaida-linked militants in Idlib kept the two vital roads closed.

Turkey, a strong backer of the rebels, has intervened in the war four times to carve out zones of influence. It has sent thousands of troops to Idlib, leading to direct clashes in which 60 Turkish soldiers and scores of Syrian forces were killed in the past month.

On Friday, Erdogan said there would be “no question of change” regarding Turkey's 12 observation posts inside Idlib, some of which now fall within Syrian government-controlled territory. The posts are manned by Turkish troops and are in place as part of the 2018 agreement with Russia. Erdogan's remarks were made on his flight back from Moscow and were carried by the state-run Anadolu Agency.

Despite the disappointment and skepticism, the cease-fire brought relief to a weary and displaced population traumatized by years of conflict and weeks of relentless bombardment amid freezing weather.

“Warplanes that used to terrorize children at night and commit massacres are not flying overhead now,” said Salwa Abdul-Rahman, a citizen journalist who spoke by phone to The Associated Press from Idlib's provincial capital, which bears the same name.

Abdul-Rahman, however, said many residents who were displaced in the past three months “are angry because they were hoping to return to their homes” that are now under government control. She added that people who “are now living in tents discovered they cannot return.”

“This matter concerns us, Syrians, but it seems we don't have a say in this. They are playing chess with us," she said of the Russia-Turkey agreement.

The European Union’s top diplomats met Friday in Croatia to discuss what to do about Syria. Upon arrival, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the cease-fire as "good news.”

“Let’s see how it works, that is the precondition in order to increase humanitarian help for the people in Idlib,” Borrell said.

The provice is home to thousands of al-Qaida-linked militants, many of whom reject a political solution for Syria's nine-year conflict, which has killed more than 400,000 people. The province also is home to about 3 million people, many of whom fled from other parts of Syria.

Assad has vowed to regain control of all parts of the country lost in the war.

Zaqzaq, the father of two in Binnish, said the truce “gave legitimacy” to the advances by Syrian forces in the past weeks and that, bit by bit, they will take back more chunks of Idlib after claiming cease-fire violations.

“This happened in Daraa, Ghouta, Rastan and now now it is biting off new areas under the pretext that the cease-fire was violated. They will then negotiate a truce from the (next) area they reach,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.