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Turkey intensifies operation in Syria’s Idlib

Children wave Turkish national flags near soldiers during a demonstration on Tuesday in support of the Turkish army’s Idlib operation near the Turkey-Syria border near Reyhanli, Hatay. (AFP)
ANKARA: There was fierce fighting on Tuesday between Turkish-backed units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) in Syria’s north-western province of Idlib.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his country’s military operations in jihadist-controlled Idlib aim to prevent a potential influx into Turkey.
Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said Turkish soldiers would remain in Idlib until threats against Turkey are dealt with.
While Ankara had long supported rebels fighting the Syrian regime, it is now concentrating on securing Turkey’s southern border against possible terrorist infiltration, and on thwarting territorial gains by the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey and has waged a bloody war against the state for more than three decades.
On Sunday, a team from the Turkish Army entered Idlib to carry out reconnaissance activities and determine the location of surveillance posts before the creation of a “de-escalation zone,” the Turkish military said.
After Operation Euphrates Shield to clear the border of Daesh and roll back Syrian-Kurdish territorial gains, this is the second time the Turkish Army conducts an operation in Syria, this time with Russian air support.
Ankara is determined to prevent Syrian Kurds from creating a strategic corridor between the cantons of Kobani and Afrin.
In the framework of the Astana peace talks — brokered on Sept. 15 between Turkey, Russia and Iran to establish de-escalation zones — Ankara will create control points in Idlib for future deployments.
The presence of observers is expected to prevent violations of the cease-fire agreement, and to pacify internal conflicts between militant groups and civilians. HTS is spearheaded by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, and is not party to the deal.
Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu on Tuesday announced a six-point summary of the stance of his Republican People’s Party on the Idlib operation, and emphasized the need to protect the lives of Turkish soldiers in Syria.
Mete Sohtaoglu, an expert on extremist movements, said Turkey’s efforts in Idlib are unlikely to go smoothly.
“There are various and competing armed groups in Idlib whose only common denominator is standing against the Assad regime,” he told Arab News.
“No armed resistance occurred during the entry of Turkish troops into Idlib, but these groups don’t want to see in Idlib any rebel faction that fought alongside Turkey in Euphrates Shield.”
Sohtaoglu said the establishment of the de-escalation zone in Idlib aims to provide safety for about 2 million civilians in the region.
“In contrast to Euphrates Shield, this cross-border deployment intends to persuade various armed groups to halt fighting and restore peace,” he added.
“The fate of Afrin, which is controlled by the YPG, will be determined by the joint efforts of Russia and Iran,” he said.
“Moscow is trying to create a pro-regime regiment to counterbalance the YPG presence there,” Sohtaoglu added.
“Turkey’s only contribution on this issue has been preventing Syrian Kurds from reaching the Mediterranean.”
Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, head of the Ankara-based think tank ANKASAM, said the Idlib operation reflects Turkey’s determination and common stance with neighboring countries to bring stability and peace to Syria
“The next step is Afrin. With these operations, Turkey intends to end the civil war in Syria, which requires the eradication of the Syrian branch of a potential Kurdish state,” Erol told Arab News.
“In that regard, the Idlib operation doesn’t only mean eliminating a terror corridor along Turkey’s southern border. It’s also a step to terminating a greater project to destabilize the region.”

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