A deal to create a buffer zone in Syria's Idlib is going ahead, despite militants missing a deadline to leave the area the day before, the Kremlin says.
A day after militants missed a deadline under a demilitarisation deal for Syria's Idlib, key powerbroker Russia said the deal was still going ahead.
The agreement, reached by opposition backer Turkey and regime ally Moscow, gave "radical fighters" until Monday to leave a horseshoe-shaped buffer around the last major opposition and rebel stronghold in the war-ravaged country.
But they have held their ground, and Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) pledged to continue fighting -- despite not taking an explicit position on the deal.
By Tuesday, more than 24 hours after the deadline, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitor said there were "no signs" of an HTS evacuation.
#SOHR On the second day of the second phase, no implementation of #Putin – #Erdogan agreement in the area demilitarized of the heavy-weapons and breaches of the truce are renewed https://t.co/YjjGO5NnsR— #المرصدالسوري #SOHR (@syriahr) October 16, 2018
Under the deal, the militants' departure would pave the way for patrols of the zone by its Russian and Turkey sponsors.
"We did not monitor on Tuesday any withdrawal or patrols in the buffer area," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
The Kremlin however said Tuesday the deal was being implemented despite some setbacks.
"The memorandum is being implemented and the military are satisfied with the way the Turkish side is working in this regard," presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists at a regular briefing.
"Of course one cannot expect everything to go smoothly with absolutely no glitches, but the work is being carried out."
There was no reaction from Ankara, which observers said was a sign of a de facto grace period to allow the deal to be fully implemented.
Clearing the buffer of HTS and other militants - including Hurras al Deen and Ansar al Islam - was seen as the real test of the September 17 accord.
The deal provides for a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone semi-circling rebel-held areas in Idlib and the neighbouring provinces of Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo.
It gave until October 10 for the zone to be cleared of any heavy weapons, a deadline Turkey, the Observatory, and rebels said had been met.
"Troops are still ready"
HTS and other hard-line groups, which together hold over two-thirds of the planned buffer, also appeared to have quietly met the first target date and pulled heavy arms out of the zone.
But publicly, HTS has stayed vague on the deal.
The group, dominated by Al Qaeda's former Syrian branch, pledged this weekend it would not stop fighting or give up its weapons, and insisted Russia should not be trusted.
"We have to wait for the Russian reaction. Russia is monitoring and following the situation," Syrian regime's foreign minister Walid al Moualem told reporters in Damascus.
But he said Idlib would inevitably return to regime control, implying a military assault was still on the table.
"We have to wait, but at the same time, our troops are still ready around Idlib," he said.
After a string of battlefield wins this year, troops loyal to the regime leader Bashar al Assad hold around two-thirds of Syria.
Moualem said the regime’s next target after recovering Idlib from rebels would be the area east of the Euphrates, indicating territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main bulk of which comprises of militants from the PKK terror group's Syrian affiliate, the YPG.
East of the Euphrates
Following two major anti-terror operations in Syria, Turkey’s president warned on Tuesday that Turkey could also take decisive steps against the PKK/YPG presence east of the Euphrates River.
"If the necessary steps are not taken [by the US] to the east of the Euphrates [against PKK/YPG] ... we will take the necessary steps at the highest level," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his party's parliamentary group.
Erdogan said that Turkey would take measures in the area "not only for the peace of our country but also for the people living in this region."
"Up to now, Turkey has determinedly taken steps, and it will continue to do so," he added, referring to Turkey's cross-border operations in Syria since 2016 - Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch - meant to rid border areas of terrorist groups.
The Idlib region, home to around three million people and had been in Assad's sights for months.
World powers and aid agencies had expressed relief after the buffer zone deal, hoping it would help avert a military assault that could have caused a humanitarian catastrophe.
Nawar Oliver, an analyst at the Turkey-based Omran Centre, said the deal may still reach fruition.
"Although the time frame has nominally expired, there are continuing efforts to implement the deal," he told AFP.
Oliver said all stakeholders in the deal, even local actors, realised that the timeframe granted in the public agreement would not be enough.
"That's why it needs more time," he said.
One possible hurdle is the internal divide within HTS over the deal.
According to a brief this month by the Omran Center, HTS chief Abu Mohammad al Jolani appears supportive of the deal and of aligning with the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), the second-most-powerful group in Idlib.
A second faction, led by an Egyptian commander, was leaning towards rejecting the deal and any partnership with the NLF.
The terms of the accord only mention "radical fighters", without specifying HTS, and give no details on monitoring mechanisms, besides Turkish and Russian patrols.