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Turkey hits back at Russia claims over Syria's Idlib

Turkey has sent multiple military reinforcements to Idlib [Anadolu/Getty]

Date of publication: 15 February, 2020

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Turkey and Russia have been embroiled in a war of words over Idlib as the Moscow-backed Syrian regime intensifies its assault.

Turkey's vice-president on Saturday hit back at Russian accusations of failing to honour a 2018 deal by insisting it carried out its responsibilities in Syria's Idlib.

"Observation posts were set up and the regime had to stay outside of this area. Russia and Iran were to ensure the regime stayed outside, Turkey had responsibilities too, Turkey fulfilled these," Vice-President Fuat Oktay told NTV broadcaster.

"Undertaking an extremely risky and difficult duty, Turkey took real initiative to stop the bloodshed of civilians, to prevent a new migration wave and to ensure it did not become a terror nest."

Turkey has 12 observation posts in the northwestern province of Idlib after the 2018 agreement between Russia and Turkey in Sochi to prevent a Damascus-led offensive.

Up to four of Turkey's posts are in Syrian regime-controlled territory, Turkish officials say.

Turkey and Russia have been embroiled in a war of words over the last rebel-held bastion of Idlib as the Syrian regime backed by Moscow has intensified an assault, killing hundreds of civilians.

Turkey's foreign minister told reporters at the Munic Security Conference Saturday that Turkey is seeking to resolve matters with Russia through diplomacy, Reuters reported.

But "if it won't work through diplomatic channels, we will take the necessary steps," Mevlut Cavusoglu said.

Cavusoglu told reporters he would hold talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Saturday afternoon at the Munich Security Conference.

He added a Turkish delegation would go to Russia on Monday for discussions.

"Russia's role here is very important because we all know what influence it has on the regime and it is the regime's guarantor," Cavusoglu said.

'Radicals'

The Russian defence ministry said earlier this week Turkey did not separate "fighters from the moderate opposition from terrorists".

[Click to enlarge]

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar then said on Thursday force would be used against anyone who did not adhere to the ceasefire, including "radicals".

Idlib is held by an array of rebels dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, which is led by members of the country's former al-Qaeda franchise.

The tensions began after 14 Turks were killed this month by regime shelling in Idlib.

Despite being on opposing sides, rebel supporter Turkey and Damascus ally Russia have worked closely on Syria.

Turkey says it wants to stop the Damascus regime's "aggression" in a bid to stop the deaths of civilians and to prevent a wave of refugees fleeing to Turkey.

Turkey is already home to more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. "Turkey cannot withstand another migration wave," Oktay said.

Tension builds

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the regime to withdraw from Turkish-manned posts by the end of February, otherwise Ankara will "take matters into its own hands."

In recent days, Turkey has sent multiple military reinforcements to Idlib, and Hurriyet daily on Saturday reported that a 60-vehicle convoy carrying commandoes and armoured carriers was sent to beef up the Turkish posts.

A Syrian military helicopter was also shot down over Idlib on Friday, killing two pilots, in the second such incident this week.

Read More: As Syria regime inches closer, Idlib city prepares for mass exodus of civilians

The Turkey-backed National Liberation Front rebel group claimed responsibility in a statement posted on the Telegram app.

Three days earlier, another Syrian military helicopter was downed over Idlib province, killing at least three crew members.

Turkish media blamed that attack on rebels but the Observatory said Ankara's troops had fired rockets at the aircraft over the village of Qaminas, southeast of Idlib city. Turkey did not claim responsibility.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad lost huge swathes of the country following an armed uprising after the brutal repression of peaceful protesters in 2011.

Read more: The eleventh hour for Idlib, Syria's last rebel bastion

With the support of Russia and Iran, loyalist forces have managed to claw back most of the opposition territories but Idlib still remains in rebel hands.

The province is home to around three million people, many of whom were displaced by previous military offensives elsewhere in the country.

According to the United Nations, close to 700,000 people have been forced to flee violence since the start of December, one of the biggest waves of displacement since the start of the war.

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