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Syria's Assad discusses Idlib truce with Russian minister

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria's president hosted Russia's defense minister on Monday to discuss a recent cease-fire in rebel-held northwestern Syria, which ended rare direct fighting between Syrian and Turkish troops.

The cease-fire deal was brokered between Russia and Turkey, which back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict. The deal halted a three-month Syrian government offensive into the country's last rebel stronghold. That Russia-backed offensive killed hundreds of civilians and displaced nearly a million people in Idlib province. Turkey backs some of the opposition groups in Idlib.

President Bashar Assad met with Sergey Shoygu in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Syria's state news agency SANA said the talks focused on implementing the Russia-Turkey agreement signed earlier this month. In addition to stopping the fighting, the agreement called for pushing militants out of a buffer zone on either side of a vital highway that runs through rebel territory .

Under the deal, militants were to stay back 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the east-west M4 highway, intended to allow the road to open for the first time in nearly eight years. Turkish and Russian troops were supposed to begin joint patrols on the M4 highway last week as part of the deal. But both the Russian government and Syrian opposition activists said the first attempt at a patrol was blocked because of protests, and the patrols have since been stopped.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Monday's talks between Assad and Shoygu focused on “enforcing the cessation of hostilities in the Idlib deescalation zone, the stabilization of the situation in other regions of Syria and various aspects of military-technical cooperation.”

Russia is a strong ally of the Syrian government, and Russia's entry into Syria's nine-year civil war in 2015 tipped the balance of power in Assad's favor. Syrian government forces now control most of the country.

Russia has been pressing Turkey, which sent thousands of troops in Idlib recently, to work on reopening the M4. The motorway — which runs through northern Syria from the Mediterranean to the Iraqi border — has been partially closed since 2012, when rebels captured parts of Idlib.

Some sections of the M4 remain under rebel control, unlike the north-south M5 highway, which Syrian forces completely recaptured in the latest offensive.

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