Beirut: Turkish forces exchanged fire on Sunday with militants from Al Qaida’s former Syrian affiliate on the border of Idlib province, a monitor and eyewitnesses said, a day after Ankara announced an imminent operation there.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Saturday that pro-Ankara rebels would lead a military campaign in the northwestern Syrian province against the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) militant coalition.
On Sunday morning, HTS militants opened fire on Turkish forces removing part of a wall along the border between Turkey and Idlib province, eyewitnesses and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
“A group of HTS opened fire on the vehicle removing part of the wall, and the Turks returned fire and also shelled the area,” one eyewitness on the border told AFP.
The Observatory reported “heavy exchanges of fire”, and said the fighting was continuing, but that the incident did not appear to mark the start of the operation Erdogan described on Saturday.
The campaign against HTS has been the subject of weeks of speculation, and is linked to plans to implement a so-called “de-escalation zone” in Idlib province and surrounding areas.
Rebel backer Turkey, along with Syrian regime allies Russia and Iran, earlier this year agreed a deal to implement four such ceasefire zones in the war-torn country as a prelude to talks on a peace deal.
The zone encompassing Idlib is the last one to go into effect, and its implementation has been held up by fierce opposition from HTS, which is dominated by Al Qaida’s former Syrian affiliate.
The group controls almost all of Idlib province after ousting rebel groups, including former allies, in an assault earlier this year.
Meanwhile, a rebel group in northern Syria handed control of a major border crossing to a Turkey-backed Syrian opposition government on Tuesday, a senior rebel official said.
By handing over the Bab Salama crossing at the Turkish border, the Jabha Shamiya rebel group aims to strengthen the opposition government and help put an end to factional rivalries, the head of its political office Khaled Aba said.
He urged other rebels to follow Jabha Shamiya’s example by handing over other crossings at the Turkish border. Jabha Shamiya, a major force in Aleppo until the Syrian government and its allies defeated the opposition there last year, has joined a “national army” operating under the authority of the interim government’s defence ministry, Aba said.
It has also handed control of its training camps to the defence ministry, he said.