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How Russia and Turkey struck a deal to avoid imminent bloodshed in Idlib

Russia and Turkey agreed Monday to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib province between the Syrian opposition and areas under the Assad's regime control. The agreement seems to save the region from a military assault and averts what was expected to be a humanitarian disaster. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Russia and Turkey today made an agreement that seems to save the Syrian province of Idlib from a military assault.

    The two countries agreed to create a demilitarized zone, averting for now what was expected to be a humanitarian disaster.

    Nick Schifrin reports on the importance of Idlib and the significance of today's agreement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For years, Idlib been the Syrian opposition's beating heart.

    And this past Friday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanded defense from what seemed like imminent assault. The Syrian government and its ally Russia call these people terrorists.

    They demonstrated to prove the regime wrong, says local community leader Raed Fares, who spoke via Skype.

  • Raed Fares:

    Four million people are civilians here. They want to live. And they are demonstrating to show that we are not terrorism. We are not terrorists at all it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Idlib had become the opposition's melting pot. Rebels, but also Islamist fighters fled here from all over the country, as Bashar al-Assad and his military recaptured territory. That made Idlib the rebel holdout.

    But Turkey closed the border, the only escape route. And so the opposition was trapped and felt like they were waiting to get bombed, like in this airstrike last month, waiting for their children to be brought out of the rubble, waiting for the horror of seven years to end in defeat.

  • Raed Fares:

    We know exactly the warplane and the barrel bomb what does it do on the ground. And we saw that — the pieces of bodies. You will see again the same feeling. You will see the warplanes again. You will see the deaths again, the death and the death again and again. And then you can imagine the feelings of the people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposed the offensive, and deployed tank to Idlib to give himself diplomatic leverage.

    And, today, Erdogan announced he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a deal.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    We have decided to form a demilitarized zone between the opposition and areas under regime control.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Putin predicted that demilitarized zone would lead to a political solution.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    We both agree that implementation of the planned steps contributes to peace returning to the Syrian soil.

  • Charles Lister:

    The implementation of this agreement or the fact that the agreement exists at all does stave off what could have been a kind of apocalyptic humanitarian disaster in Northwestern Syria.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Charles Lister is the Syria expert at the Middle East institute. He says Russia supported the agreement because it didn't want the burden of a difficult military campaign. The agreement hinges on whether Turkey can keep not only rebel groups, but also extremist groups, away from regime-held territory.

  • Charles Lister:

    All groups, except for the most extremist ones, do remain solidly under Turkish influence. That can be called upon to make this agreement work.

    The big question, as I say, still remains the most extremist groups in the area, will they abide by what is in a sense a compromise, for the sake of surviving further into the long term?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The path to Turkey and Russia controlling Northwest Syria's fate follows the path of English teacher Saleh Hawa. In 2012, he helped lead an anti-Assad protest in Haritan, just southwest of Idlib.

    Rebels had fought the Syrian army and pushed them out, and Hawa was a hopeful local council leader.

  • Saleh Hawa:

    We are looking forward to a better future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But then the Russians intervened, and Haritan was bombarded by Russian and Syrian jets.

    And when we spoke to him again in 2016, Saleh Hawa's hope and hometown were both gone.

  • Saleh Hawa:

    Most of the population of Haritan left the town, because there was no single house which is safe right now. We were let down. America let us down.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And as everyone else let them down, Turkey became the redeemer, as he told us today.

  • Saleh Hawa:

    The Syrian people see that the only savior for them is Turkey. Maybe, a few years ago, they hoped that America would do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And with that Turkish backing came the defiance that Idlib showed during those protests last Friday.

  • Saleh Hawa:

    Right now, even if the Russians use nuclear weapons, we are not going to leave our houses. There is no other place to go.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that is still true despite the agreement. Those who oppose Assad will remain isolated and kept away from the regime by Turkish and Russian troops. But that means, at least for now, the people have Idlib have been spared.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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