ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday said pro-Ankara Syrian rebels were staging a new military operation in Syria’s militant-controlled Idlib province.
The move, which had been rumoured for weeks, comes as Turkey along with Russia prepares to set up a so-called “de-escalation” zone in Idlib in line with accords in peace talks in Astana aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
“We are taking new steps to ensure security in Idlib. Today, a very serious operation is ongoing in Idlib and this will continue,” Erdogan said in a televised speech in the western city of Afyon.
Erdogan said that many Syrians had fled to Idlib from the neighbouring Aleppo province, which was rocked by heavy fighting last year, and Turkey was not going to let them down.
Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), a group led by Al Qaida’s former Syria affiliate.
HTS is not party to a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran for the safe zone in the province, one of four such “de-escalation” zones nationwide.
“We will absolutely not allow the creation of a terror corridor along our borders,” said Erdogan in his speech.
The president later told reporters the operation was led by Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and that the Turkish army was not yet operating there.
Media reports have pointed to a heavy deployment of military hardware and personnel by the Turkish army to its southern border area in recent weeks.
“At the moment the Free Syrian Army is operating there (inside Syria), our troops are not there yet,” Erdogan said, quoted by the Dogan news agency.
Turkey earlier this year wrapped up its months-long Euphrates Shield operation against jihadists and Kurdish militia in the northern Aleppo province that involved both the Turkish army and Syrian rebels.
Asked whether the Idlib operation would be similar to Euphrates Shield, Erdogan replied: “When you enter the boxing ring you don’t count your punches.”