Turkey bolsters outposts in Idlib

Turkey has sent nearly 150 vehicles with commandos and ammunition to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held region, Turkish state news agency Anadolu reported Friday. A Turkish security source emphasised they were only to reinforce the 12 existing posts established under a 2018 deal with Russia to prevent an offensive by Syrian government forces.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes in recent weeks as the Syrian regime, backed by Russian air strikes, presses an assault to retake Idlib. Five Turkish soldiers and three civilians were killed earlier this week by regime shelling. Retaliatory fire by Turkey killed at least 13 Syrian troops.

Turkey says three of its outposts — all in the southeastern part of the region — have now been encircled by regime forces. The UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights monitor said Wednesday that Turkish troops at another position in Saraqeb had shelled Syrian forces to prevent it also being surrounded.

The security source refused to confirm those clashes but said Turkish forces in the area ‘are taking every kind of measure and will take every kind of measure’ to ensure safety. He said Turkey’s priority was to stop the Syrian advance and reinstate the ceasefire, stressing that no Turkish soldiers would be evacuated.

Turkey and Russia have worked closely in recent years to resolve the situation in Idlib despite being on opposing sides of the conflict. The Turkish source insisted that coordination with Russia remained strong and that joint patrols in northeastern Syria were only cancelled earlier this week due to ‘heavy weather conditions’.

A delegation from Russia is expected in Turkey on Saturday for further talks, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara. Government forces Thursday seized large parts of the key highway town of Saraqeb as they pushed an offensive in the last rebel enclave in northwestern Syria, a war monitor said.

Weeks of intensive aerial bombardment and a bruising ground offensive have emptied entire towns in the Idlib region and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes. As Russia-backed regime forces chipped away at the jihadist-dominated region, 23 Syrian and foreign fighters were killed in pre-dawn Israeli strikes on targets south of Damascus where the Jewish state says arch foe Iran has a presence.

The battle for Saraqeb, which sits at the junction of two major highways coveted by the regime, came as Turkey sent reinforcements north of the town overnight, a day after Ankara warned pro-Damascus forces to back off.