Turkish forces near the northern Syrian town of al-Rai. File photo: Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the launch of a new offensive headed by Syrian opposition forces backed by the Turkish army to oust al Qaeda-linked jihadists from Syria’s Idlib province.
“Today there is a serious operation in Idlib and it will continue,” Erdogan said in a televised speech at a party conference on Saturday.
The offensive is being led by pro-Ankara Free Syrian Army (FSA) elements and the Turkish military is not yet in the province, he explained to reporters later in the day.
State-run Anadolu Agency reported fully-equipped Turkish commando units were seen moving in Turkey’s Hatay province to the border with Idlib province.
The Turkish army has carried out military operations in northern Syria, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield, side-by-side with the FSA when it crossed the border last year with the stated aim of clearing border areas of terrorists, naming both ISIS and Kurdish groups.
Erdogan reiterated on Saturday that Turkey would not permit the establishment of a “terror corridor” along its border and “the Idlib operation will allow us new initiatives on this issue.”
He said the Idlib operation is a continuation of Euphrates Shield.
In recent months, the Turkish army has built up its forces around Idlib province and the Kurdish canton of Afrin, just to the north of Idlib. Officials in Ankara said this week that they would not hesitate to carry out a military intervention in Afrin if it deems such a move necessary to protect Turkey’s security.
Idlib province is largely under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), led by al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate formerly known as the Nusra Front.
In last month’s Astana talks, Turkey, Iran, and Russia agreed to establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib. Erdogan said the new offensive was a “new step” to return security to Idlib and he promised that Turkey would not abandon the province’s civilian population, including the many who fled there from Aleppo.
Erdogan said that Russia is also participating in the offensive, providing aerial support and “protecting outside the borders” of the province, while Turkey “will handle inside.”
A Syrian rebel commander told AP that operations have not yet begun, but the aim “is to finish Nusra Front.”