Turkish soldiers stand near armoured vehicles near the Turkey-Syria border on Tuesday. Photo: Ilyas Akengin/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Turkish troops have begun establishing observation posts in Syria’s Idlib province, the army confirmed on Friday, with the first troops being deployed near the Kurdish canton of Afrin.
“Turkish Armed Forces elements that are to serve in the Idlib de-escalation zone have started their activities by establishing observation posts,” the army said in a statement as published by state-run Anadolu Agency, explaining that they were carrying out their activities within the terms agreed on as part of the Astana talks.
The Turkish forces crossed into Syria from Turkey’s Hatay province Thursday night.
In Astana, Turkey, Iran, and Russia agreed on establishing a de-escalation zone in Idlib province, some of which is currently under control of the Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. The Turkish military has been preparing for an offensive against Tahrir al-Sham in coordination with elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Ankara is backing.
Blocking Kurdish expansion is another goal of Turkey’s military offensive. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that they would not allow the Kurds to establish a “terror corridor,” linking its territories in eastern Syria to the Mediterranean Sea.
Ankara believes the armed Kurdish YPG and its political wing the PYD are extensions of the PKK, a named terrorist organization.
Facts on the ground and statements from Erdogan indicate that deterring the Kurds is the primary focus of the offensive.
Reconnaissance teams had entered Syrian territory earlier in the week. Multiple reports stated that the Turkish forces were accompanied by Tahrir al-Sham and were negotiating with the group
to take control over areas in Idlib province that border the YPG-controlled Afrin canton.
Anadolu Agency confirmed that the first Turkish troops deployed in Idlib have been stationed near Afrin. The state-run media said the deployment will eventually expand southward.
A Kurdish militiaman confirmed to AP that the Turks had positioned themselves at three points along a “front” between Afrin and Idlib.
An FSA official, Mustafa Sejari, told Reuters that the operation was to ensure protection “from Russian and regime bombing and to foil any attempt by the separatist YPG militias to illegally seize any territory,”
He said that YPG efforts to extend their territory to the Mediterranean have today “become a dream.”
Erdogan justified the offensive in Syria as necessary for Turkey’s own protection given their long border with Syria.
“It is us who are under constant abuse and threat,” he told a meeting of his party on Friday, according to Anadolu. Turkey must, therefore, take its “own measures.”
In describing the threats against Turkey, he mentioned supporters of the Gulen Movement, which Ankara blames for plotting last year’s failed coup, and the PKK.
The YPG said on Twitter that “Turkey is not after anything in Idlib but Efrin siege could ignite fire of another war in the reigon.”