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story.lead_photo.caption Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem (right) and Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari hold a news conference Monday during al-Jaafari’s visit to Damascus. Syria is working to renew ties with its neighbors after removing rebel forces from most of the country.

BEIRUT -- Militants in Syria indicated tepid support for a demilitarized zone in the country's final opposition stronghold, even as they appeared to defy an internationally brokered deadline Monday for their withdrawal.

The area surrounding the northern province of Idlib is home to about 2.5 million people, most of them civilians. Aid groups have warned that an offensive there could spell a humanitarian catastrophe.

A Sept. 17 deal between Russia and Turkey -- key backers of Syria's government and rebel forces, respectively -- called for heavy weapons and Islamist militant groups to be pulled out of a roughly 13-mile-wide buffer zone.

But as the deadline passed, monitoring groups said that although a bloc of Turkey-backed rebels had withdrawn their weapons, the province's most extreme militants were still there.

"We value the efforts of all those striving -- at home and abroad -- to protect the liberated area and prevent its invasion and the perpetration of massacres in it," the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham said in a statement late Sunday.

"But we warn at the same time against the trickery of the Russian occupier or having faith in its intentions," it added. The militant group also said it "would not forget" the foreign fighters who came to assist it.

Analysts interpreted the statement as a sign that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham -- whose reluctance to withdraw could throw up one of the biggest obstacles to the deal -- would grudgingly comply.

"HTS' statement seems to amount to a tacit acceptance of the [agreement's] terms, even as HTS rejects more far-reaching concessions like renouncing armed struggle and voices its distrust of the deal's Russian co-sponsor," said Sam Heller, senior analyst on nonstate armed groups for the International Crisis Group, using an acronym for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The stakes are high. President Bashar Assad's government routinely emphasizes its desire to control every inch of Syria, seven years into a war that tore more than a third of the country from its grasp.

Both Turkey and Russia have a vested interest in keeping the peace. In Ankara, the risk is that an all-out offensive could send refugees pouring into Turkey. Russia is trying to disentangle itself from a war on which it has spent billions of dollars.

But aid groups warned that the break in fighting had yielded few meaningful changes in the humanitarian situation.

"Aid workers across the network of camps are telling us that up to 45 percent of school-age children are out of formal education, going to makeshift classes in shanty tents," said Rachel Sider, advocacy and information adviser on Syria for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Local doctors and humanitarian workers also say they have been subject to a growing campaign of arrests, kidnappings and intimidation by extremist groups.

With Syria's rebel forces nearing defeat, Assad's government is renewing trade ties with neighbors.

Syria's commercial gateway with Jordan and a crossing with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which is staffed by U.N. peacekeepers, were reopened Monday.

"We are now witnessing the early fruits of victory," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said at a news conference in Damascus. Sitting next to his Iraqi counterpart, who was visiting on Monday, al-Moallem said the two countries are discussing reopening a border crossing.

"No one should isolate Syria," Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's foreign minister, said, adding that he was advocating for Syria's return to the Arab League.

Assad's government has been largely isolated by its Arab neighbors since the civil war broke out in 2011. The 22-member Arab League froze Syria's membership shortly after the war began and imposed sanctions.

Commercial delegations converged on the Naseeb crossing with Jordan on Monday, and members of the Syrian chamber of commerce went into Jordan to meet with their counterparts. The first truck carrying citrus fruit entered Jordan, and dozens of private cars drove into Syria.

"We are brothers. Our economy is connected to the Syrian economy," said Abdel-Salam Theyabat, the head of a Jordanian chamber of commerce.

At the Quneitra border crossing, leaders of the Druze community, which straddles the frontier, were first on the scene to attend the flag-raising ceremony. Humanitarian and community leaders said they hoped the crossing would soon be open to trade and movement of students.

A plaque announcing the reactivation of the crossing was signed off with "Mercy to the martyrs and to Syria victory and peace."

Information for this article was contributed by Louisa Loveluck of The Washington Post; and by Albert Aji, Omar Akour and Sarah El Deeb of The Associated Press.

Jordanian cars prepare to cross into Syria at the Jordanian-Syrian border Monday in Mafraq, Jordan. A vital border crossing linking Syria and Jordan has reopened for the first time in three years, promising to restore commercial trade and travel between the two countries.

A Section on 10/16/2018

Print Headline: Militants waver in Syrian DMZ

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