Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have announced a military ceasefire in Idlib to begin at midnight on Thursday, after a meeting in Moscow that lasted six hours.
Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, has witnessed increased violence and bloodshed since last December, the start of a Russia-backed Syrian offensive to regain control over the region.
“At 00.01 tonight, as in, from midnight, the ceasefire will be put in place,” Erdogan told reporters in Moscow.
Erdogan added that Turkey, which has sent thousands of troops into Idlib to repel the Syrian army, would not “remain silent” on attacks by Syrian government forces, and warned Ankara would retaliate against any assaults with full force.
For his part, Putin said Russia did not always agree with its Turkish partners, but voiced hope that the deal will serve as a “good basis for ending the fighting in the Idlib de-escalation zone, put an end to suffering of civilian population and contain a growing humanitarian crisis.”
Since last December, more than 300 civilians, including at least 100 children, have been killed in Idlib.
Nearly one million have been internally displaced to the border with Turkey, most of whom struggle to find adequate shelter and are forced to camp out in the open – the worst humanitarian crisis in Syria’s nine-year civil war, according to the United Nations.
Erdogan on Thursday said the two leaders agreed to help refugees return to their homes.
Turkey and Russia on Thursday also agreed to establish a secure corridor along a key east-west highway in Syria’s Idlib and hold joint patrols on it as of March 15.
In a joint statement read out by the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, the two sides said the secure corridor would stretch 6km (3.7 miles) to the north and 6km to the south of the M4 highway.
They said their defence ministers would agree on the parameters of the corridor within a week.
Until the latest crisis, Putin and Erdogan had managed to coordinate their interests in Syria even though Moscow backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Ankara supported the opposition forces.
Al-Assad – who gave an interview to the state-owned Russia 24 news channel broadcast earlier on Thursday – accused Turkey’s president of “supporting terrorists”.
“Erdogan is unable to tell the Turks why he is sending his army to fight in Syria and why his soldiers are being killed there, because the issue has nothing to do with Turkish interests but with his Muslim Brotherhood ideology,” al-Assad said.
“The Syrian people, as we have witnessed mainly in the army, have the legendary ability to sacrifice. The fact that our friends Russia and Iran have stood with us has played an essential role in our resilience.”
The Idlib crisis marks the first time Ankara has launched a direct offensive against al-Assad’s forces.
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahebarra, reporting from Hatay on the Turkish-Syrian border, said Erdogan managed to get some “huge concessions” in the talks.
“I think this is going to be seen as a massive victory for Erdogan,” Ahelbarra said. They got the ceasefire plus the safe corridors and also resettlement of the civilians back into their areas.
“Erdogan won’t have to be concerned about his soldiers. Also, Turkey has been very concerned about a protracted conflict in Idlib that would pave the way for four million civilians to cross into Turkey. I think now those some of those people will be able to go back to their villages.”
After dozens of his troops were killed in Syria, Erdogan threatened Europe with a fresh refugee crisis by allowing refugees to travel on to Europe from Turkey, which he said can no longer handle new waves of people fleeing war-torn Syria.
On Thursday, Putin offered his condolences to Erdogan over Turkish losses in a Syrian air attack, but noted there were also deaths among Syrian forces.
Another Turkish soldier died in an attack in Idlib on Thursday, raising the number of Turkish soldiers killed since the beginning of February to 59.
After Turkey downed several Syrian jets, Moscow warned Ankara its aircraft would be unsafe if they enter Syrian airspace – a veiled threat to engage Russian military assets in Syria.
Fighting continued on Thursday in Idlib during the talks in Russia. Opposition activists there blamed Russian aircraft for an attack on a rebel-held village, which they said killed at least 15 people, including children, and wounded several others.
The Russian military had no immediate comment on the claim, but it has staunchly denied similar previous claims insisting it has not targeted residential areas.
Despite Thursday’s breakthrough, hopes for peace among some Syrians remain low.
Raja Androon, a 65-year-old Syrian from Idlib whose two sons were killed by Syrian government forces, now lives in Antakya, southern Turkey.
“The talks may result in less fighting, but I’m not holding my breath for the Syrian regime to get out of Idlib,” she told Al Jazeera. “I hope Idlib will come under autonomous rule, and not fall under Assad’s control.”
According to the volunteer organisation White Helmets, 612 Syrian civilians have been killed by government forces and their allies since the beginning of this year.
With reporting by Linah Alsaafin in Antakya.