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Russia-Turkey agreement on Idlib coordinated with Damascus - deputy PM

Moscow and Damascus had been in "intensive consultations" on the issue, Walid Muallem said

THE UNITED NATIONS, September 29. /TASS/. The agreement on Idlib de-escalation zone signed by Presidents of Russia and Turkey, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been negotiated with Syria’s government, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Saturday addressing the 73rd United Nations General Assembly.

Moscow and Damascus had been in "intensive consultations" on the issue, he said.

"We welcomed the agreement on Idlib reached in Sochi on September 17," the Syrian top diplomat added.

"The agreement is time-bound, includes clear deadlines, and complements the agreements on the de-escalation zones reached in Astana," he said.

The September 17 talks between the Russian and Turkish Presidents, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Russia’s Sochi yielded an agreement to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib, along the contact line between government troops and the opposition by October 15. At Ankara’s initiative, it is planned to withdraw the opposition’s tanks, multiple missile launcher systems, artillery systems and mortars from this zone by October 10. Control in this zone will be exercised by mobile patrol groups of Turkish troops and unites of Russian military police.

Idlib is the only large region in Syria that is still controlled by illegal armed groups. In 2017, a northern de-escalation zone was established in Idlib to give shelter to militants and their families who are reluctant to voluntarily surrender arms.

According to United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, about 10,000 Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda (both outlawed in Russia) militants are currently staying in the region. When Damascus finally regains control of the governorate, it will put an end to the large-scale armed confrontation in Syria.

OPCW visit

Muallem also said some Western countries purposefully blocked an OPCW expert mission’s visit to Syria as they realized that the outcome of the probe into the use of chemical weapons would not satisfy them.

Muallem pointed out that Damascus had always been ready to cooperate with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), but some countries tried to politicize its work.

"Unfortunately, every time we express our readiness to receive objective and professional investigative teams to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons, these countries would block such efforts because they know that the conclusions of the investigations would not satisfy the ill-intentions they harbor against Syria," he said.

It happened when the United States, France and the United Kingdom launched aggression against Syria, justifying it by Damascus’ alleged use of chemical weapons against own citizens.

"We fully condemn and reject the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances, wherever, whenever, and regardless of the target. This is why Syria eliminated completely its chemical program and fulfilled all its commitments as a member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), as confirmed by numerous OPCW reports," Muallem said.

US, France, Turkey must withdraw

Syria demands that the United States, France and Turkey immediately withdraw their troops from its territory, Syria's top diplomat said.

"We … consider any forces operating on Syrian territory without an explicit request from the Syrian government, including US, French, and Turkish forces, occupying forces and will be dealt with accordingly. They must withdraw immediately and without conditions," he said.

Muallem called barbarous the US-led coalition’s strikes which wiped out the city of Raqqa.

The coalition "has done everything but fight terrorism," he noted, it is "sowing chaos, death and destruction in their path."

"It committed massacres against civilians, including children and women, which amount to war crimes under international law. The coalition has also provided direct military support to terrorists, on multiple occasions, as they fought against the Syrian army," the foreign minister said.

"It should have been more aptly named 'The Coalition to Support Terrorists and War Crimes'," he concluded.

Post-war reconstruction

The war against terrorist groups in Syria is about to be over, and the country is becoming more and more safe, Muallem told the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly. 

"The situation on the ground has become more secure and stable and that our war on terror is almost over," he said.

"Today, as we are about to close the last chapter in the crisis, Syrians are coming together to erase the traces of this terrorist war and to rebuild their country with their own hands," the Syrian official added.

He said that every Syrian returning to his home country was a priority for Syria’s government. 

"The return of every Syrian refugee is a priority for the Syrian state. Doors are open for all Syrians abroad to return voluntarily and safely," he said.

"Thanks to the help of Russia, the Syrian government will spare no effort to facilitate the return of those refugees and meet their basic needs," Muallem said adding that the government had set up a special committee that would oversee the Syrian refugees’ return to their native places.

Damascus’ top diplomat lashed out at Western states’ attempts "in line with their dishonest behavior since the start of the war on Syria" to stop refugees from coming back from abroad.

"They are spreading irrational fears among refugees; they are politicizing what should be a purely humanitarian issue, using refugees as a bargaining chip to serve their political agenda, and linking the return of refugees to the political process," Muallem emphasized.

Upcoming Constitutional Committee meeting

Speaking about the reconciliation process, Muallem said Syria recognizes as inadmissible any interference in the work of the constitutional committee, which is due to convene in Geneva alongside UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. 

"No pre-conditions should be imposed on the committee, nor should its recommendations be prejudged. The committee must be independent since the constitution is a Syrian matter to be decided by Syrians themselves," he said.

Muallem’s words were a reply to the demand the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan put forward on Friday. It says that Mistura should convene the constitutional committee to draft Syria’s constitution and should present a report on its progress at the UN Security Council by October 31.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday at a news conference wrapping up his participation in the weeklong 73rd United Nations General Assembly, that Russia disagrees with attempts made by some countries to set out an artificial timeframe for setting up a Syrian constitutional committee.

An agreement to form this mechanism was reached at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in the Russia Black Sea resort of Sochi on January 30. In teamwork with Staffan de Mistura, it will engage in preparing proposals to draft a Syrian constitution. The constitutional committee will draw on a pool of 150 names (100 names from the government and internal moderate opposition and 50 names from external opposition).