Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on Saturday that the country has launched a “serious” operation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province with Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces following international efforts for de-escalation in the war-torn country.
According to Reuters, Erdoğan said earlier on Saturday that the Free Syria Army (FSA) was carrying out the operation while Russia was backing it from the air and Turkish soldiers were supporting it from inside Turkish borders.
The operation has been highly expected in the province, where al-Qaeda-linked fighters enjoy wide influence, after last month’s talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana during which Turkey, Iran and Russia agreed on setting up “a de-escalation zone” in the province.
Speaking to reporters before launching the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) consultation and assessment retreat in Afyonkarahisar province on Saturday, Erdoğan said the operation was a new step to establish security in Idlib, promising Turkey would not desert civilians there.
“Today, there is a serious operation in Idlib, and it will continue,” he said.
Turkish-backed FSA forces are fighting against the al-Qaeda-linked Levant Liberation Committee, formerly known as the Nusra Front. In past weeks the Turkish military has been dispatching tanks and armored vehicles to the border with Idlib.
According to AP, a Syrian rebel commander speaking from Turkey said no military operations are ongoing at the moment but said preparations were under way for Turkish troops and FSA fighters to enter Idlib.
“The aim of the operation is to implement the Astana agreement by setting up Turkish observation posts similar to those of Russia,” Lt. Col. Fares al-Bayoush said in an exchange of text messages.
“This cannot be achieved without confronting the Nusra Front,” he said. “The aim is to finish the Nusra Front.”
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that the Turkish “deployment” would be to reach de-escalation goals rather than engage in clashes with local militia or the Syrian army.
US officials say that Idlib has become the biggest al-Qaeda concentration since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.