ISTANBUL: Turkey’s military will continue its operation in Syria’s Afrin and Manbij regions, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday during a parliamentary address to his ruling AK Party.
In 2016, Turkey launched the Euphrates Shield operation on its Syrian border to eradicate what it called a “corridor of terror,” made up by the dual threat of Daesh and Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Turkish foreign minister accused the Syrian regime of striking moderate opposition forces in Idlib province near the Turkish border, warning it could torpedo talks aimed at ending the war.
Ankara is working closely on Syria with Russia and Iran, President Bashar Assad’s main allies, but has stepped up criticism of the regime’s behavior in recent days.
“Regime forces are striking moderate opposition with the pretext of fighting against Al-Nusra (Front),” Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying by the official Anadolu news agency, referring to the former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Idlib province is almost entirely controlled by anti-regime forces that are dominated by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) consisting mostly of former Al-Nusra fighters.
“This attitude would scupper the political solution process,” Cavusoglu said.
“The parties that will come together in Sochi should refrain from” any action that could threaten the talks, he warned.
Russia is hoping to hold a Syria peace congress in its Black Sea resort of Sochi on Jan. 29-30.
Meanwhile, US-brokered talks based in Geneva between the regime and the opposition are also going forward, albeit at a stuttering pace.
A previous attempt in November to convene talks in Sochi failed due to disagreements between the prospective participants.
Turkey says it will oppose any talks involving the Kurdish militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Ankara views as a terror group.
In 2016, Ankara and Moscow brokered a fragile cease-fire in certain areas — which has been bolstered by the negotiations in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Both Damascus and the opposition factions regularly accuse one another of violating the cease-fire in the de-escalation zones, including in Idlib.
A likely future sticking point between Russia and Turkey is the fate of Assad, who Ankara has vehemently opposed throughout the conflict.
Last month, Erdogan said it was impossible to advance with Assad in power, describing him as a “terrorist.”
Syrian regime forces on Monday pounded Idlib as well as the Eastern Ghouta enclave near Damascus, the two last opposition bastions in Syria.
Cavusoglu also accused the regime forces of attacking moderate opposition fighters under the guise of fighting extremists.
His comments came a day after regime forces captured 14 villages as they advanced on the largest opposition-held enclave in the country’s north amid a wave of airstrikes. The troops aim to reach an opposition-held air base in Idlib province and secure the road linking the capital, Damascus, with Aleppo.
The regime offensive around Idlib has forced thousands of civilians to flee toward the border with Turkey.
Cavusoglu said Syrian regime attacks on moderate opposition forces would “ax” peace efforts.
Turkey, Russia and Iran have taken the lead in Syria peace efforts over the past year. Turkey however, backs the opposition while Russia and Iran are close allies of Assad.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said the number of Russian troops left in Syria is sufficient for fending off any attacks by militants.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said late on Monday that its forces have repelled a series of drone attacks on its bases in Syria — the Hemeimeem air base and a naval facility in Tartus. It said that out of the 13 drones involved, seven were shot down and six were forced to land. The ministry said there was no damage.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in Syria last month and ordered a partial troops pullout.
Asked Tuesday whether the withdrawal could have been premature in view of the drone attack, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian forces in Syria have “all the necessary means” to counter any challenge.