TURKEY THREATENS TO STEP UP ATTACKS IN SYRIA
Vow to use force further frays bonds between Moscow and Ankara
Turkey threatened to use force against “radicals” in Syria’s Idlib province on Thursday after criticism from Russia over its role in the rebel-held region, where both countries brokered a ceasefire deal in 2018.
“Force will be used in Idlib against those who do not abide by the ceasefire, including the radicals,” Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said after a Nato ministers meeting in Brussels.
Idlib is held by rebels including the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham umbrella group, led by members of Syria’s former Al Qaeda branch.
The group refused to surrender heavy weapons, as required under the 2018 ceasefire agreement.
Mr Akar’s comments come after an exchange of accusations between Ankara and Moscow over the situation in Idlib two months into a Syrian government offensive that has driven about 700,000 people from their homes.
Russia on Wednesday accused Turkey of ignoring its agreements and of aggravating the situation in Idlib, in one of the strongest signs yet that the military escalation is straining relations between the two main peace brokers in Syria’s civil war.
Russia previously avoided direct criticism of Turkey on Syria but on Wednesday the Kremlin, and the foreign and defence ministries accused Ankara of bad faith.
The criticism came after a call between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Turkey was “disregarding its commitments” under agreements to reduce fighting between the Russian-backed Syrian military and opposition groups in Idlib, many of which are backed by Turkey.
The fighting in Idlib has escalated since December as Syrian forces snd their allies made significant gains in their campaign to eliminate the last insurgent bastion in the nineyear war.
Turkey sent more troops and weaponry into Idlib after advancing government forces surrounded some of its observation posts and killed 13 Turkish troops in the past 10 days.
The Turkish outposts were set up under 2018 deal to create a demilitarised zone in Idlib.
Moscow said Turkey had failed to deliver on a promise to “neutralise” extremist militants in Idlib, something it called unacceptable.
The Russian Foreign Ministry reminded Ankara that its forces were in Syria without the blessing of the Syrian government, while the Defence Ministry said Turkish troops were aggravating the situation in the province.
Russia took issue with Turkey after Mr Erdogan said his military would strike Syrian forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.
The Russian Defence Ministry said the presence of Turkish troops in Idlib was making the situation there much worse.
“The situation is significantly aggravated by the delivery of weapons and ammunition” through the Turkish-Syrian border, “as well as columns of Turkish armoured vehicles and troops”, the ministry said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow remained committed to the deal on Syria it had struck with Ankara.
But Mr Peskov said that Russia considered militant attacks in Idlib to be unacceptable and in contravention of the agreement.