Erdoğan threatens stronger military action in Syria if truce broken: report

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Armoured vehicles and soldiers of Turkish Armed Forces start to patrol between northern Syrian city of Manbij and Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield area on June 18, 2018. AFP PHOTOS

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday that Turkey would not refrain from even stronger military action in northwest Syria’s Idlib region if a ceasefire agreed last week is broken, Reuters reported.

Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria’s war, agreed on a ceasefire to stop escalating clashes in Idlib that brought the two countries close to direct confrontation and displaced almost a million people.

In a speech to lawmakers from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in parliament, Erdoğan said there had been small violations of the ceasefire and that Turkey’s priority was the safety of the 12 observation posts it has established in the region.

“We will not just retaliate [against] even the smallest attack here [in Idlib], we will give a much harsher response,” he said. “Turkish soldiers, the sons of this nation, are never in need of the cruel Assad’s protection, so let that be known,” he added, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted separately as saying that talks between Turkish and Russian officials on implementing the ceasefire have so far been “positive and constructive.”

In recent weeks Russia-backed Syrian government forces intensified their campaign to retake Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in the country. That prompted Turkey, which backs some rebels looking to oust Assad, to mount a counter-offensive to repel their advances.

A Russian delegation arrived in Ankara on Tuesday for talks on details of the agreement, which the two sides said would be finalized by next week. The deal establishes a security corridor and joint patrols along a key east-west highway in Idlib.

Speaking to reporters in parliament, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu acknowledged minor violations of the truce but that added Moscow had warned Damascus to stop.

“We are currently discussing measures to be taken for the M4 highway to be safely opened to traffic. There were talks last night, and these will continue,” Çavuşoğlu said. “At the moment, we are working to make this temporary ceasefire a lasting one. That’s where we are at currently.”

Turkey’s Defense Ministry later said the second day of talks with the Russian delegation had begun in Ankara.

While the ceasefire meets Turkey’s most pressing concern — stopping a fresh influx of migrants from Idlib — it cements recent Syrian government advances and allows Russia to move further north than they have been able to before.

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