Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday announced pro-Ankara Syrian militants were launching a new military operation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, allegedly to push out Takfiris controlling the region.
The move comes as Turkey, along with Russia and Iran, prepare to set up de-escalation zone in Idlib in line with accords in peace talks in Astana aimed at ending the Syrian war.
Turkish commando units and military vehicles have reportedly massed on the border but are yet to cross, in what will be Ankara’s second major Syria operation after its so-called Euphrates Shield incursion last year.
“We are taking new steps to ensure security in Idlib. Today, a very serious operation is ongoing in Idlib and this will continue,” Erdogan said in a televised speech in the western city of Afyon.
He later told reporters the operation was led by so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) militants and that the Turkish army was “not yet” operating inside Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said late Saturday that the aim of the operation was to “completely” prevent clashes in the region and speed up the political process in line with the Astana talks, NTV television said.
Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), previously known as Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, which ousted other militant factions in recent months.
The province is one of four such de-escalation zones agreed upon across Syria.
“We will absolutely not allow the creation of a terror corridor along our borders,” Erdogan, whose country is well known for backing anti-government militants throughout the war In Syria, said.
HTS warned in a statement, without mentioning Turkey, that the “treacherous factions that stand by the side of the Russian occupier” should only enter the area if they want “their mothers to be bereaved, their children to be orphaned, their wives to be widowed.”
Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency said there was a major build up of Turkish commando units and military vehicles around the town of Reyhanli bordering Idlib close to the Cilvegozu border crossing.
Turkish army chief of staff General Hulusi Akar carried out an inspection of the forces late Saturday, state media said.
The Hurriyet daily said ultimately Turkey would “ensure security” in Idlib city and Russia in the surrounding area.
In his speech, Erdogan said: “Idlib is a region where we will provide protection in the inside and Russia on the outside.”