ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday “a serious operation” was beginning in Syria’s Idlib and a Syrian rebel official said his group was preparing to enter the area with the backing of Turkish forces.
Idlib and surrounding areas of northwest Syria are among the largest bastions for rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but have increasingly fallen under the sway of jihadist insurgent factions.
“Today there’s a serious operation in Idlib and it will continue, because we have to extend a hand to our brothers in Idlib and to our brothers who arrived in Idlib,” Erdogan said.
“Now this step has been taken, and it is underway,” he said, adding that Turkish forces were not yet involved at that it was a rebel operation so far.
Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in the Euphrates Shield campaign that Ankara launched in northern Syria last year are ready to cross into northwest Syria from Turkey, Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in the Liwa al-Mutasem group said.
“The Free Syrian Army with support from Turkish troops is in full readiness to enter the area but until this moment there is no movement,” he said.
Erdogan said last month that Turkey would deploy troops in Syria’s northwest Idlib province as part of a so-called de-escalation agreement brokered by Russia in August.
Another FSA rebel in the Euphrates Shield campaign told Reuters he believed an incursion into northwest Syria was imminent.
The Hamza Brigade, also part of Euphrates Shield, posted video online of what it said was a convoy of its forces heading for Idlib.
Residents near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey in Syria sent Reuters photographs of what they said was a section of the frontier wall being removed by the Turkish authorities.
Reporting by Ece Toksabay in Istanbul, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut, editing by Jeremy Gaunt