As Turkish-Russian interests clash, Erdogan warns of incursion into Idlib

“It is obvious that the only aim of those encouraging the regime is to prolong this situation in Syria for a long time,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in reference to Russia.
Friday 31/01/2020
Turkish military vehicles pass through the Syrian town of Dana in Idlib province's north, on January 29. (AFP)
Turkish military vehicles pass through the Syrian town of Dana in Idlib province's north, on January 29. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to send troops into the Syria’s Idlib province to counter a government offensive against rebels there and prevent tens of thousands of refugees from streaming into Turkey.

It was Erdogan’s sharpest threat yet in a conflict that has driven hundreds of thousands of people to the Turkish border and that threatens to disrupt the delicate balance between the interests of Turkey and Russia, the main backer of Syria’s government.

The Turkish leader accused Damascus of trying to pressure Ankara by pushing refugees towards Idlib’s borders with Turkey.

“We will not tolerate the regime’s continuous effort to threaten us with refugees,” Erdogan said January 31 while addressing officials from his ruling Justice and Development Party.

“It is obvious that the only aim of those encouraging the regime is to prolong this situation in Syria for a long time,” he said, in reference to Russia. “We will not shy away from doing what is necessary for the stability of Syria, including the use of military force.”

Erdogan warned on January 29 that Ankara was losing patience with the assault in Idlib and accused Russia of violating agreements aimed at curbing conflict in the region. The Kremlin said on January 31 that Russia was fully compliant with its obligations in Idlib but that it was deeply concerned about what it said were aggressive militant attacks on Syrian government forces and Russia’s Hmeimim Air Base south-west of Idlib.

Erdogan’s speech January 31 came as advances by the Russia-backed Syrian military drove more civilians to the closed border with Turkey. US Syria Envoy James Jeffrey said 700,000 people had been pushed towards the Turkish border by the fighting.

A Syrian opposition official in Turkey said by telephone that living conditions along the border were dire. “It’s so crowded there. There is no space,” the official said. “There are not even tents.”

Syrian activists said refugees at the Turkish border in Idlib were planning a protest action under the title “From Idlib to Berlin” February 2. The Syrian opposition member in Turkey said the protest was aimed at European countries that were not doing enough to stop the humanitarian situation in Idlib from worsening.

Ahmad Abazed, a Syrian activist, said in a message that thousands of people were expected at the rally. The aim was to send “a political message to protect Idlib,” he said, adding that it was possible participants would try to cross into Turkey.

Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Erdogan said Turkey could not handle a fresh influx of migrants.

Speaking at an online news briefing, Jeffrey said that, in recent days, Syrian government and Russian warplanes had hit Idlib with 200 air strikes “mainly against civilians” and that several Turkish observation posts had been “cut off” by the government advance.

There are “massive movements of troops pushing back hundreds of square kilometres and setting -- I think now -- 700,000 people who have already internally displaced on the move once again towards the Turkish border, which will then create an international crisis,” Jeffrey said.

In a significant milestone for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s stated drive to reclaim all of Syria, government forces on January 28 took Idlib’s second-biggest city, Maarat al-Numan, an urban centre that straddles the M5 international highway linking Damascus to Aleppo and considered vital for trade.

A Syrian Army general speaking January 30 during a media tour of Maarat al-Numan told Reuters the latest military campaign was focused on securing the M5 highway. “God willing, in four to five days it will be ready,” he said.