The Free Syrian Army, a rebel force backed by Turkey, has begun “major military operations” in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday.
The move comes after a tripartite agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey to drive out Hayat Tahrir al Sham, an al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group that largely controls the province with an estimated 20,000 fighters cobbled together from the remnants of various Islamist militias.
Russia is offering air support to the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, widely considered a meagre and ineffective military force, as part of the tripartite deal to help contain the Islamist militias inside Idlib.
Turkish commandos were deployed along the southern border, and some military equipment, including artillery, had already been moved into a small buffer zone inside Syrian territory in the past few weeks, a Turkish official said.
The question of Idlib has been consuming the relationship between Turkey, Russia and Iran in the last few months. Especially as the area remains one of the last few parts of the country in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could still assert control. Other areas — in the east and south — are either already held by US-backed Kurdish militia or in the process of being won back by them from Islamic State.
A sliver of land is controlled by Turkey since an operation in 2016 when Turkish forces entered Syria through the border town of Jarablus and took it and the city of Al Bab from Islamic State. The move positioned Turkey and Turkish-backed forces between two cantons controlled by Kurdish militia and brought the country close to aconflict with US forces that support the militia.
That military excursion, which claimed the lives of dozens of Turkish soldiers and took months to complete, exposed the limited battlefield utility of the Free Syrian Army. The group served mostly as a political prop for the so-called Operation Euphrates Shield, while Turkish Special Forces did most of the fighting.
Mr Erdogan framed the military operation as an effort to stop the Kurdish group from expanding westwards from the northern district of Afrin. Analysts say Turkish forces will eventually have to get involved and support the Free Syrian Army in Idlib. This is unless Mr Erdogan is able to broker a surrender by the Islamist militias. “It’s very unlikely,” a Turkish official said.
However, Turkish and western officials said Mr Erdogan was responding to demands from Russia to resolve the Idlib issue, particularly as some of the Hayat Tahrir al Sham fighters there were previously trained and backed by Turkey, before officially joining the al-Qaeda-linked group.
“In the last meetings with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, Erdogan was told to fix Idlib,” a western diplomat said. “The other option was that Russian forces would push from the south until Turkey was forced to open its border to more refugees, which would include thousands of jihadi fighters.”
Some of those fighters had been evacuated to Idlib from Aleppo in a Turkey-Russia brokered evacuation, but were forced to leave all heavy weaponry behind during their retreat, the Turkish official said.
Local activists in Idlib said Russia and Syrian fighter planes had stepped up assaults inside the province in the last few weeks.