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Syrians in rebel enclave protest Turkey-Syria contacts

IDLIB, Syria (AP) — Thousands of Syrians held protests Friday in different parts of the rebel-held northwest against recent moves by the governments in Damascus and Ankara to improve ties.

The protests in villages and towns in Idlib and Aleppo provinces came a week after the Turkish, Syrian and Russian defense ministers held previously unannounced talks in Moscow in the first such meeting between rivals Turkey and Syria since the start of the Syrian conflict 11 years ago.

Turkey has been a main backer of insurgents fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. . Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections in June and is under intense pressure at home to send Syrian war refugees back to Syria.

Damascus and Ankara have been holding talks at the security level in recent months but last week’s meeting in Moscow raised alarms among opposition activists who fear they could pay a price for a Damascus-Ankara reconciliation.

“Listen Erdogan, the blood of the martyrs cannot be sold,” chanted a group of protesters.

Russia, a main backer of Assad, has long been pressing for the reconciliation. Syria’s civil war has killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed large parts of the country. It has also displaced half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million.

Many of the displaced now live in tent settlements in the rebel-held northwestern Syria while Turkey is estimated to now host around 3.7 million Syrian war refugees.

The rebel-held northwest is also the base of the powerful al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, which dominates the region’s rebel groups.

Earlier this week, the group’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, said a deal between Turkey and Syria would be a “serious deviation” and called on his fighters to prepare for a long battle against Syrian government forces.

The Associated Press

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