Turkey announces start of Idlib operation
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the start of an operation in Syria’s jihadist-controlled Idlib, as increased military movement is being observed near the southern Turkish border.
“There is a serious operation in Idlib at the moment and this will continue,” Erdoğan said during the 26th semi-annual “consultation and assessment camp” of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Oct. 7, as he added that the operation aims to provide Idlib’s security.
The move, which had been rumored for weeks, comes as Turkey along with Russia prepares to set up a so-called "de-escalation" zone in Idlib in line with accords in peace talks in Astana aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), spearheaded by a former al-Qaeda affiliate that changed its name last year from the Nusra Front.
HTS is not party to a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran for the safe zone in the province, one of four such "de-escalation" zones nationwide.
Ousting HTS forces from the area will be needed to allow the arrival of Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces to implement a de-escalation zone.
During his speech, Erdoğan said that the operation in Idlib is the follow-up of the Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria, which was launched on Aug. 24, 2016, in a bid to clear Turkey’s border from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and stop the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from merging its Kobane and Afrin cantons.
'No terror corridor'
Erdoğan reiterated his previous comments regarding “the formation of a terror corridor near the border.”
“We have to help our brothers who arrived in Idlib after fleeing Aleppo. We won’t let them down. The necessary step was taken and it is ongoing. We will never allow the formation of a terror corridor along our border with Syria,” he said, adding that new initiatives after the Idlib operation may be taken.
After his speech, Erdoğan was asked about whether Turkish soldiers entered Idlib for the operation, to which he replied by saying that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is carrying out the operation for now.
“The FSA is currently carrying out the operation and our soldiers are not there,” Erdoğan said, adding that the name of the operation will be announced later on.
Saying that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are backing the operation from inside the Turkish border, Erdoğan noted that Russia is providing aerial support.
Erdoğan was also asked about whether the method to be used in the Idlib operation will be similar to the Euphrates Shield Operation.
“You don’t count fists when you are boxing,” he said.
'Prepared for refugee influx'
The president also said that Russia and Turkey are acting jointly regarding the protection of people in Idlib, while adding that Turkey will provide security for Idlib’s interiors and Russia will protect the outer and border areas.
Russia, along with Iran, is the key backer of President Bashar al-Assad and Moscow’s military intervention inside Syria is widely seen as tipping the balance in the conflict. Turkey, however, has backed rebels seeking Assad’s ouster.
Commenting on the coordination with Russia, Erdoğan said: "Relations with the regime is something looked after by Russia, and we have taken measures in other areas."
All precautions and preparations have been taken in case of a refugee influx from Idlib to Turkey, Erdoğan noted.
Idlib's population has ballooned to at least two million as thousands of civilians and combatants have left areas seized by the Syrian army in other parts of the country, with the help of Russian jets and Iran-backed militias.
MHP leader praises move
The move, meanwhile, was praised by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, who said that the party supports Erdoğan on the issue.
“As the MHP we are with the president as long as these consistent policies continue,” Bahçeli said on Oct. 7, as he added that Erdoğan “has been following the issue in a multidimensional manner and acts in a determined way.”
“We wish them luck,” Bahçeli also said.
Earlier on Oct. 7, reports regarding heavy military deployment near the Syrian border emerged, with military hardware and personnel arriving at the Reyhanlı district of the southern province of Hatay, where Cilvegözü border gate is located in.
Erdoğan, Macron discuss Syria, Iraq
Meanwhile, Erdoğan and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron discussed the developments in Syria and Iraq over the phone on Oct. 7.
The leaders stressed the protection of territorial integrities of Iraq and Syria.
Another phone call was held between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif on Oct. 7.
The ministers reportedly discussed the regional developments.
Çavuşoğlu also held a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson upon the latter’s request.
Intel chief, top soldier inspect border units
Later on Oct. 7, Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar carried out inspections the border units in Hatay and received information regarding the operation in Idlib.
Akar was accompanied by force commanders and the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan.