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Turkey will hit Syrian government forces anywhere if troops hurt: Erdogan

51 Syrian soldiers killed
A Turkish soldier walks near Turkish military vehicles in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
2020-02-12

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SULAIMANI — Turkey’s military will strike Syrian government forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier is hurt, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday (February 12).

Erdogan said Turkey is determined to push Syrian government forces beyond Turkish observation posts in the northwestern Idlib region by the end of February, and he warned allied Syrian rebels not to give government forces an excuse to attack.

Violence has flared in Idlib, just south of Turkey’s border, in recent weeks as government forces backed by Russia and Iran have made gains in their campaign to eliminate the last insurgent bastion after the country’s nine year war.

Turkey, which is allied with some rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, mounted a counter attack on Tuesday after 13 Turkish military personnel were killed by Syrian shelling in Idlib in the last 10 days.

 “If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,” Erdogan said, referring to a 2018 ceasefire accord.

“We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating, without allowing for any stalling,” he told members of his AK Party in Ankara. Russia, which has an air base in Syria, has controlled Idlib’s air space for several years.

The Turkish military casualties have strained ties between Ankara and Moscow. The TASS news agency quoted the Kremlin as saying Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan agreed in a phone call that the sides would continue contacts on Syria.

Erdogan said Turkey-backed rebels have mobilized to push Syrian government forces out of Idlib, but added they must remain disciplined.

“We have given the message that we will act without compromise to those from the opposition groups who act in an undisciplined way and give the regime an excuse to attack,” he said.

 

US-TURKISH TALKS ON WEDNESDAY

James Jeffrey, the US envoy for Syria, is set to meet senior Turkish officials in Ankara on Wednesday and the US Embassy there said they would discuss working together toward a political solution to the conflict.

“Today, our NATO ally Turkey is facing a threat from Assad’s government and Russia. We are here to assess the situation with the Turkish government and offer support if possible,” said Jeffrey, who arrived in Ankara late on Tuesday.

Idlib’s fate may well be decided by Turkey and Russia as much as by Assad.

Russia has officers on the ground advising the Syrians on the campaign as well as some ground forces, and Russian warplanes have carried out numerous air strikes.

Ankara has sent thousands of soldiers across the border to help stem the Syrian offensive.

Relief agencies meanwhile said an exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians from the afflicted areas was the largest such movement in the war and marked a new humanitarian crisis.

Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot absorb any more. It said it would halt any new refugee waves from Idlib and its military would remain deployed there.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday the Syrian government would pay a “very heavy price” for attacking Turkish troops, including five killed on Monday and eight Turkish personnel killed a week earlier.

“We gave the necessary responses to the Syrian side at the highest level. Especially in Idlib, they got what they deserved. But this is not enough, it will continue,” he said in Ankara, adding he would announce on Wednesday a detailed plan for Idlib.

Talks in Ankara between Turkey and a Russian delegation ended on Monday without agreement on halting the fighting, a Turkish diplomatic source said.

Turkish officials told the Russians that attacks on Turkish posts inside Idlib must cease immediately and that Turkish forces had destroyed several Syrian government targets in retaliation. Erdogan has warned Turkey will drive back Assad’s forces unless they withdraw by the end of this month.

The Kremlin said on Tuesday all attacks on Russian and Syrian forces in Idlib must stop.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss the situation with Erdogan by phone later on Tuesday, TASS news agency said.

 

AIR RAIDS

Since launching their new offensive in December, government forces have recaptured more than 600 square km (230 square miles) of territory, and in recent days wrested control of dozens of towns and villages.

The rebels are a mix of nationalist factions and Islamist militants who have had deadly rivalries but are now closing ranks.

Last week government troops recaptured rebel-held Saraqeb, where Turkey had several military personnel stationed.

Rescue teams said on Tuesday Russian and Syrian warplanes had bombed several towns in Idlib and carried out air raids in nearby western Aleppo province where rebels are present. At least 13 civilians were killed overnight in the air strikes, they said.

The rapid advances by Assad’s forces in Idlib have driven nearly 700,000 people - mostly women and children - from their homes toward the sealed Turkish border in the past 10 weeks.

“This is, from our initial analysis, the largest number of people in a single period since the Syrian crisis began almost nine years ago,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the United Nations’ OCHA humanitarian agency, told reporters in Geneva.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Andrej Mahecic said the harsh winter weather was making their suffering worse and that shelter was hard to find.

“Even finding a place in an unfinished building is becoming nearly impossible,” he said, adding that mosques were full.

Witnesses and rebels said a new column of Turkish reinforcements, including tanks, rocket launchers and armored vehicles, crossed the border into Idlib overnight.

The battle for Idlib is a crucial stage of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians, made millions refugees in their own country or overseas, and fractured the wider Middle East since it broke out amid the Arab Spring in 2011.

Moscow’s military intervention in 2015 helped swing the war decisively in favor of Assad, Syria’s ruler for nearly 20 years, but he now presides over a devastated country.

(NRT Digital Media/Reuters)