Turkey bolsters Idlib military presence
ISTANBUL - Turkey's military has sent its most significant batch of reinforcements to the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib in weeks, reports said Monday, as Ankara seeks to prevent a Moscow-backed assault by forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
The reports came as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepared to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi in a new bid to warn the Kremlin against seeking to take rebel-held Idlib by force.
Under a deal agreed with Russia, Turkey has already set up 12 so-called observation points inside Idlib aimed at monitoring a de-escalation of violence.
The Hurriyet daily said the reinforcements included tanks and other military hardware accompanied by a convoy of some 50 military vehicles.
They were sent over the border Sunday to the Turkish observation point of Jisr al-Shugur in the southwest of Idlib province.
It was the latest move in recent days by Turkey to shore up one of its observation points but Hurriyet said it was the most significant sent in the current spike in tensions.
Idlib is seen as the last stronghold of armed opposition to Assad after Syria's over seven year civil war. But some 60 percent of its territory is controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, regarded as a successor to the former branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria.
Erdogan has repeatedly warned that an offensive by the regime to retake Idlib would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and send a new wave of refugees towards Turkey.
In comments published in the Turkish press on Monday, Erdogan warned that the consequences of an offensive on Idlib would be "heavy".
"The people who leave are going to come to Turkey. They are not going to go to Iran, Iraq, Russia, Germany or France. This is why they must help Turkey and share the burden," he said.
Turkey and Russia in theory are on opposing sides in the Syrian war with Ankara backing rebels seeking the ouster of Assad, while Moscow and Tehran are the president's key allies.
In the last months Turkey and Russia have worked closely together in a bid to bring peace to Syria but analysts say the tensions over Idlib risk testing the alliance.
While Ankara says it agrees with Moscow on the need to push extremists out of Idlib, it is also concerned about the fate of moderate pro-Turkey rebels who are also present in the area.
Erdogan also said ahead of his talks with Putin that joint measures could be taken against "terrorist groups who are among the opposition".
But he warned that Turkey would not "take part in a measure which uses excuses to carry out bombing."