Vow to use force fur­ther frays bonds be­tween Moscow and Ankara

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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.

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