Turkish forces move in the de-escalation zone in Idlib province Friday as part of a peace deal with Russia in the Syrian rebel stronghold. Photo by Yahya Nemah/EPA-EFE
March 8 (UPI) -- Turkey and Russia began joint patrols of Syria's Idlib province Friday, the last stronghold for Syrian rebels, in an agreement meant to protect more than 3 million civilians.
Turkey and Russia had agreed last year to establish a buffer zone, in hopes of keeping peace in the region so the civilians are not forced to flee into Turkey and other parts of Europe.
Russia, which supports the Syrian government, is expected to patrol the edge of the province. Turkey, which backs the Syrian rebels, will protect the negotiated demilitarized zone around the province.
"There were restrictions on the use of Idlib and Afrin regions' airspace but these have been lifted from today," Turkey defense minister Hulusi Akar told state-run Anadolu News. The patrols mark "an important step for the continuation of cease-fire and maintaining stability" in Idlib.
The patrols are the latest move in an effort to bring peace to the country that has been tangled in a bloody, destructive civil war since 2011. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started using military force then to crack down on pro-democracy protests at the height of the widespread Arab Spring.
Idlib is overcrowded, Akar said. "At least 3.5 million civilians are said to be living in Idlib. If the situation escalates in Idlib, these people are going to flood not only Turkey's borders but also Europe."
The patrols come as the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces prepare for a final assault on Baghouz, the last conclave for the Islamic State militants in western Syria. Some 3,000 civilians had been evacuated from the town this week.