DAMASCUS / GAZİANTEP
A mobile missile launcher is positioned at a military base in Reyhanlı. REUTERS photo
Syrian troops have been massing near the Turkish border as top Turkish soldiers headed toward the frontier to inspect military posts amid heightened tensions following Syria’s downing of a Turkish jet last week.
Around 2,500 troops, backed by 170 Syrian tanks and other vehicles, have assembled at an infantry school near the village of Musalmieh northeast of the city of Aleppo, just 30 kilometers from the Turkish border, said Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Higher Military Council, a group of senior officers who have defected from al-Assad’s forces.
“They’re preparing either to move to the border to counter the Turkish deployment or attack the rebellious [Syrian] towns and villages in and around the border zone north of Aleppo,” al-Sheikh told Reuters by telephone from the border.
But a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman denied any threats to Turkey, saying: “[There are] no hostile intentions from the Syrian side.”
North of the border, Turkish Land Forces Commander Gen. Hayri Kıvrıkoğlu visited the southern provinces of Gaziantep and Kahramanmaraş along with other top commanders to check army posts stationed in the region.
Turkey has sent missile batteries, tanks and troops to the border after Syria shot down a Turkish warplane late last week. Dozens of military vehicles headed for the border in a convoy that included air defense systems.
Helicopter gunships bombarded a strategic town in northern Syria, and tanks moved close to the commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels said, but kept well clear of new Turkish air defenses installed to curb Syrian action near its frontiers.
Omar Abdallah, an activist in Idlib coordinating with the Free Syrian Army, said: “After taking hits in rural Aleppo and Idlib, the army is re-grouping ... There is speculation that these forces intend to ring Aleppo starting July 1.”
Rebels said Damascus’ helicopters attacked Saraqeb, a strategic town deep in Idlib province, but kept away from the area directly along the Turkish border in the rural regions of Idlib and Aleppo provinces.