Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to establish a demilitarized zone in the Syrian province of Idlib beginning October 15. Photo by Alexander Zemlianchenko/EPA
Sept. 17 (UPI) -- Russia and Turkey agreed Monday to establish a demilitarized zone in the Syrian province of Idlib amid concerns of a potentially catastrophic offensive against rebels in the area.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced they would create the demilitarized zone by Oct. 15 during a meeting in Sochi.
Putin said the zone will extend 9 miles to 12 miles deep and that all militants should evacuate the zone along with "heavy armaments, rocket launchers, tanks and mortars of all opposition forces," by Oct. 10.
The leaders also announced both Turkish and Russian forces would patrol the demilitarized zone.
"The territory controlled by the Syrian opposition must be demilitarized," Erdogan said. "But together with Russia, we will put our efforts into clearing those territories of radical elements."
The decision comes after Syria's government forces, which are backed by Russia, appeared to be preparing a major offensive to clear members of the al-Qaida and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham -- also known as the al-Nusra Front -- militant groups from the area.
In August, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura warned the offensive could add to a "perfect storm" of factors contributing to a potential humanitarian crisis in Idlib, which is home to about 3 million people, including 1.4 million who have already been displaced at least once amid similar assaults in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta and would have nowhere else to go.
Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu signaled the country was willing to cooperate with allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Russia and Iran in combating terrorists in the region, while maintaining a goal of limiting the civilian death toll in Idlib as much as possible.
Erdogan had called for "a more comprehensive international counterterrorism operation" that would include the rebel forces in Idlib, as Turkey has already taken in many Syrian refugees amid the ongoing conflict between rebels and the government.