As the Turkish armed forces announce the beginning of a new offensive in the Idlib province of northwestern Syria, the Bab Al Hawa checkpoint on the Turkish-Syrian border is experiencing an influx of young Syrian refugees voluntarily returning to their country to join the fighting, Deutsche Welle Turkish service reported on Monday.
Some 100 young men from Idlib, aged around 20, have obtained voluntary return documents from Turkish immigration authorities and returned home. They will not be able to re-enter Turkey for the next five years.
“I am going to fight, to wage jihad,” said Ahmed Mohammed Khalaf, a 23-year-old man who was asked by immigration officials why he wants to go back. He had left Idlib three years ago as the fighting intensified around the city and he has been working in orange groves in the border province of Hatay ever since.
Khalaf has decided to join the Syrian National Army (SNA), an armed rebel group backed by Turkey in its fight against the Syrian government.
Regal Hammadi, another young man of 20 years, told DW that he is returning to fight in order to improve the situation in his hometown of Idlib. “Either we get martyred to that end, or we emerge victorious,” he said. “We are going in support of Turkey’s operation, to avenge our martyrs.”
A 70-year-old former air force general, Zuhayr Qassum, was also among those who left for Syria. “He destroyed our houses and killed our children,” he said, in reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Turkey was right to go into Syria [to intervene]. Now they [Syrian forces] are unable to bomb civilians. Bashar will fall and Turkey will win.”
Turkey announced operation Spring Shield after its forces came under attack by Assad’s forces in Idlib on Feb. 28, leaving 36 Turkish servicemen dead.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had set the end of February as a deadline for the Syrian military to withdraw from areas designated for demilitarization under the Turkish-Russian Sochi agreement of September 2018. Erdoğan vowed to repel Assad’s forces from the demilitarized zone.
Russia has repeatedly warned that Turkey failed to remove jihadist groups from the area, a commitment it undertook in the Sochi deal. The Syrian military, backed by Russian air support, recently moved into the area, occupying large amounts of territory and besieging several Turkish military observation posts established in accordance with the agreement.