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Turkey reinforces military positions in Idlib

Local | 2018-09-12 20:01:00
Turkey reinforces military positions in Idlib
Turkey is reinforcing its military posts inside Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib, Turkish and Syrian rebels sources say, seeking to deter a government offensive that it says would unleash a humanitarian disaster on its border. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that an assault by the army and its Russian and Iran-backed allies on Idlib, home to around 3 million people, will uproot hundreds of thousands in one of Syria’s last rebel strongholds.

Already hosting 3.5 million Syrians, the world’s biggest refugee population, Turkey says it cannot absorb more victims of the war and has accused the West of abandoning it to face the consequences of President Bashar Assad’s reconquest of Syria.

At a meeting in Tehran last Friday with the presidents of Russia and Iran, seen as the last realistic chance to avert all-out conflict in the insurgent-held region, Erdogan failed to win a pledge of cease-fire from Assad’s two main backers.

But his Defense Minister Hulusi Akar says Turkey remains determined to halt the weekslong airstrikes on Idlib and forestall a ground offensive, while officials warn that Turkey would respond if its forces inside Idlib come under fire.

Intermittent artillery fire hit southern districts of Idlib province and adjacent rebel-held areas of Hama province Wednesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

A major assault on Idlib would “unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday.

Three Turkish security and government officials told Reuters that troops, armored vehicles and equipment had been sent to the Syrian border. A senior security source said the army has reinforced 12 Turkish military posts inside Idlib itself.

“We have a military presence there and if that military presence is damaged or attacked in any way, it would be considered an attack on Turkey and would therefore receive the necessary retaliation,” the source said.

The observation posts were set up in the Idlib region last year under an accord with Russia and Iran designating Idlib and parts of neighboring provinces a “de-escalation zone.” Three similar zones, on Syria’s southern border with Jordan, to the east and to the north of Damascus, have since been recaptured by the Syrian army and its allies. A senior Syrian rebel said Turkey had sent dozens of armored vehicles and tanks, as well as hundreds of special forces personnel to Idlib, a move he said showed Idlib would not share the fate of the other rebel regions.

“There are very big reinforcements of Turkish forces inside Syria and these observation posts have now in effect become permanent military bases,” Mustafa Sejari said.

The Turkish military does not comment on troop movements, but Reuters television footage has shown military convoys heading to the border region in the last week.

Rebel sources told Reuters that Turkey has also stepped up supplies to the rebel forces in Idlib in recent days, including ammunition and rockets.

“They pledged complete Turkish military support for a long, protracted battle,” a senior Free Syrian Army commander who was privy to talks in recent days with senior Turkish officials said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly.

A second rebel commander said: “The Turks are making sure they have enough munitions that keep them going for a long while,” he added.

Although it opened its doors to Syrians escaping the fighting in the early years of the conflict, Turkey has since built a wall along its 900-kilometer border with Syria.

It says it cannot take more refugees, and Turkish aid and security officials say that in the event of conflict in Idlib, they would seek to shelter displaced people inside Syria rather than hosting them on Turkish soil.

Turkey has said for months that Islamist militants, who control several major towns in Idlib, should be specifically targeted to avoid the humanitarian consequences of an indiscriminate war.

Thousands of Syrians are already sheltering in camps close to the border, relying on proximity to Turkey to protect them from Syrian or Russian airstrikes.

Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said a refugee influx across Turkey’s borders would have international repercussions.

Ankara reached a deal with the European Union two years ago to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, after the influx caused a political crisis in the bloc.

“The global community also needs to take responsibility,” Kalin said after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday. “Another migrant wave coming to Turkey at a time when we already host millions of refugees will cause other complications,” he said. “This will spread from here to Europe and other countries.”

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