“There’s a serious operation in Idlib today and it will continue,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech to his AK Party. Turkey would not allow a “terror corridor” on its border with Syria, he added.
“For now, the Free Syria Army (FSA) is carrying out the operation there,” Erdogan said. “Russia is supporting the operation from the air, and our armed forces from inside Turkey’s borders.”
Turkey supports the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Russia has helped him to survive. Erdogan’s comments, however, suggested Russia and Turkey would fight together against Tahrir Al-Sham, an extremist alliance led by the former Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that changed its name last year from the Nusra Front.
Tahrir Al-Sham has taken over much of Idlib province and northwestern Syria, where the population has increased to at least 2 million as thousands of civilians and fighters fled other parts of Syria seized by Assad regime forces and Iran-backed militias.
Turkey, Russia and Iran announced a deal in Astana last month to establish and patrol a de-escalation zone in Idlib region, but Tahrir Al-Sham pledged to continue fighting.
Turkey already has troops inside Syria after an incursion east of Idlib last year, Operation Euphrates Shield, to drive back Daesh militants and prevent further gains by Kurdish fighters on the border.
“We will continue to take other initiatives after the Idlib operation,” Erdogan said in his speech.
Turkey’s aim is to clear militants from its border with Syria, and to prevent the Syrian Kurds from creating a strategic corridor between Kobane and Afrin.
Turkey recently built a 688-km-long security wall along its border with Syria. Some parts of the wall have now been dismantled, Mete Sohtaoglu, an expert on Middle East and global jihadist movements, told Arab News.
“In the first stage, about 1,000 FSA fighters will enter Idlib, guided by Turkish military and intelligence officers who have experience on the ground,” he said.
“About 5,000 commando units from the Turkish Army will intercept the road between Idlib and Afrin.
“The aim of Turkey is to isolate Afrin region. If Turkish soldiers engage in operations, they will be deployed on military bases that Turkey constructed before in Idlib, one of them on a mountain that overlooks Afrin.
“However, the fighters in the region have high combat and guerrilla capability. They have fought before in regions like Afghanistan and Bosnia. They can inflict serious casualties on the FSA and the fighting may go on for months. If the FSA faces great resistance when heading toward the center of Idlib, the Turkish Army might be obliged to intervene.”
Ahmet Han, international relations professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said the new military operation had three messages.
“First, it will provide Turkey with greater border security. Second, it will secure additional Turkish leverage on the future of Syrian politics through its protectorate over the local fighter groups, such as the FSA. Third, Turkey will find the opportunity to show that it still has a role in shaping the ground in accordance with its priorities.
“The immediate next step, at least as envisaged by Turkish decision makers, would be, if possible, to use the momentum of this operation in order to increase its pressure on Afrin and secure its southern border.”
Meanwhile, Some 120 Daesh fighters and 60 foreign mercenaries were killed in a series of Russian airstrikes in Syria over the past 24 hours, the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow said on Saturday.
Puzzlingly, the ministry also said three senior Daesh commanders including Omar Al-Shishani had been confirmed dead as a result of an earlier Russian strike.
Moscow reported Al-Shishani’s death despite the fact that the Pentagon said in 2016 the notorious fighter had been killed by American troops in Iraq, AFP said.