Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Saturday that the country launched a “serious” operation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province with Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces, following international efforts for de-escalation in the war-torn country.
The operation has been highly expected in the province, where al-Qaida-linked fighters enjoy wide influence, after last month’s talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana during which Turkey, Iran and Russia agreed on setting up “a de-escalation zone” in the province.
Turkey is a strong backer of Syrian opposition fighters while Iran and Russia back President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow joined the war two years ago siding with Mr. Assad while Tehran has sent thousands of Iran-backed fighters tipping the balance of power in the President’s favour.
In late September, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey, where he discussed the situation in Syria with Mr. Erdogan and earlier this week the Turkish leader went to Tehran.
Mr. Erdogan said the operation was a “new step” to establish security in Idlib, promising Turkey would not desert civilians there.
“Today, there is a serious operation in Idlib and it will continue,” he said at his political party’s conference in Afyonkarahisar province in western Turkey.
Free Syrian Army
Responding to journalists’ questions after the televised speech, Mr. Erdogan said, “The Free Syrian Army is leading an operation in Idlib right now,” referring to moderate rebel groups in Syria. He added that the Turkish military was not yet in the province.
Turkey-backed Syrian forces are fighting the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee, formerly known as Nusra Front. In the past weeks, the Turkish military has been dispatching tanks and armoured vehicles to the border with Idlib.
A Syrian rebel commander speaking from Turkey said no military operations were ongoing at the moment but said preparations were under way for Turkish troops and FSA fighters to enter Idlib.
“The aim of the operation is to implement the Astana agreement by setting up Turkish observation posts similar to those of Russia,” Lt. Col. Fares al-Bayoush said in an exchange of text messages. “This cannot be achieved without confronting the Nusra Front,” he said.
“The aim is to finish Nusra Front.”
Mr. Erdogan said Turkey would provide security inside Idlib and Russia on the periphery. Last month, a negotiated “de-escalation zone” in the mostly rebel-held province of Idlib was announced during talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Iran, Turkey and Russia reached the deal for four de-escalation zones earlier this year as part of their efforts to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war.
Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported that the Turkish “deployment” would be to reach de-escalation goals rather than engage in clashes with local militia or the Syrian army.
The Turkish President warned that the country would not permit a “terror corridor” along its border, referring to extremists groups as well as U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militants.