Turkey kicks off of­fen­sive to rid rebel-held Idlib of rad­i­cals

More than 100 sol­diers and spe­cial forces cross bor­der into Syria in 30 ar­moured ve­hi­cles

Gulf News - - MIDDLE EAST -

Turkey an­nounced yes­ter­day it had de­ployed dozens of sol­diers in the Syr­ian prov­ince of Idlib as part of its ef­forts to estab­lish a de-es­ca­la­tion zone to stop fight­ing in the largely mil­i­tant-con­trolled north­west­ern re­gion.

The de­ploy­ment also ap­peared to be aimed at pre­vent­ing the ex­pan­sion of Syr­ian Kur­dish mili­tia backed by the United States, but con­sid­ered by Ankara to be “ter­ror­ists”.

Over 100 sol­diers, in­clud­ing spe­cial forces, and 30 ar­moured ve­hi­cles en­tered Idlib, Turkey’s Hur­riyet daily re­ported yes­ter­day, as it spec­u­lated more troops could be sent to the prov­ince over the next few days.

In a state­ment yes­ter­day the mil­i­tary said that it had be­gun “ac­tiv­i­ties to estab­lish ob­ser­va­tion posts on Oc­to­ber 12 [Thurs­day]”.

Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan said yes­ter­day that Turk­ish armed forces had en­tered Syria with the Free Syr­ian Army, the name Ankara uses when re­fer­ring to rebels seek­ing Pres­i­dent Bashar Al As­sad’s ouster.

Op­er­a­tion started

“We said we would come un­ex­pect­edly in the night, and last night ... we started the op­er­a­tion,” he said dur­ing a tele­vised speech in Ankara.

“No one can say to us, ‘why are you do­ing this’?” he thun­dered.

Idlib is largely con­trolled by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), a group led by Al Qaida’s for­mer Syria af­fil­i­ate, which ousted more mod­er­ate rebels in re­cent months.

The lat­est de­ploy­ment comes af­ter the Turk­ish army launched a re­con­nais­sance mis­sion on Sun­day as part of ef­forts by Turkey, along with Rus­sia and Iran, to set up the zone in line with ac­cords in As­tana peace talks aimed at end­ing the Syr­ian civil war.

Turkey says it is back­ing Syr­ian rebels in a bid to oust HTS mem­bers in the area to al­low Ira­nian, Rus­sian and Turk­ish forces to im­ple­ment the zone.

They agreed on four such cease­fire zones in Syria as a pre­lude to ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Three zones are al­ready in place — in East­ern Ghouta near Da­m­as­cus, in cen­tral Homs, and in parts of south­ern Syria — which are be­ing mon­i­tored by Rus­sian mil­i­tary po­lice.

The fourth de-es­ca­la­tion zone in­cludes Idlib but also parts of the neigh­bour­ing Latakia, Hama and Aleppo re­gions.

The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights con­firmed late Thurs­day a Turk­ish mil­i­tary con­voy en­tered Idlib be­fore head­ing to­wards the western part of Aleppo prov­ince.

The op­er­a­tion’s tar­get is the HTS but Ob­ser­va­tory head Rami Ab­dul Rah­man told AFP in Beirut that Turk­ish forces were es­corted by HTS ele­ments, ap­pear­ing to sug­gest a de­gree of co­or­di­na­tion by Turkey with the group.

A to­tal of 14 “ob­ser­va­tion posts” will be set up by the Turk­ish army, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal me­dia, while some 500 Turk­ish sol­diers could be de­ployed to Idlib.

While Turkey sup­ports Syr­ian op­po­si­tion fighters and calls for Al As­sad’s ouster, Ankara has worked closely in the last few months with Rus­sia — who sup­ports Al As­sad — in the hope of bring­ing the war to an end.

Idlib is one of the last re­main­ing strongholds of the rebels, which has re­cap­tured vast swaths of ter­ri­tory from op­po­si­tion fighters since Moscow in­ter­vened on its be­half in Septem­ber 2015.

The last time Turk­ish forces were en­gaged in Syria was in Au­gust, when Turkey launched its eight-month long Euphrates Shield op­er­a­tion against mil­i­tants and Kur­dish mili­tia in north­ern Syria.

One of Turkey’s main con­cerns is the ex­pan­sion of the Syr­ian Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG), which Ankara says is linked to the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK) wag­ing an in­sur­gency inside Turkey.

Er­do­gan has re­peat­edly vowed he will not al­low the YPG to form a “ter­ror cor­ri­dor” reach­ing the Mediter­ranean on Turkey’s south­ern bor­der.

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