SUN 9 - 8 - 2020
Date: Aug 23, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Syria offensive puts Turkish troops, border plans in peril
ISTANBUL/DAMASCUS: Syrian army advances in northwest Syria are putting Turkish troops in the firing line and threaten Ankara’s hopes of preventing a new wave of refugees on its southern border.

The offensive around Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria, has already forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee toward Turkey. It has also cut off a Turkish military post deep inside Syria as the deal to limit fighting in the region, which the Turkish troops were supposed to be monitoring, collapses.

Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed in 2017 to set up four “de-escalation zones” to stem fighting between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and rebels, but the Syrian army has retaken three of those areas and is now advancing in the fourth.

It has entered the town of Khan Sheikhoun, effectively cutting off Turkish troops at a military post near the town of Morek, 70 kilometers inside Syria. A Turkish convoy sent to resupply the Morek post was halted Monday by an airstrike.

Turkey’s state-run news agency said a Turkish observation post north of Khan Sheikhoun came under “harassing fire” by Syrian government jets Thursday. The Anadolu Agency reported no damage or injury in the incident, which involved a different Turkish post than that in Morek.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said Syrian warplanes struck an area nearly 300 meters from the Turkish military post. Turkey sent a convoy of reinforcements consisting of armored vehicles, personnel, personnel carriers and ammunition to its observation posts in Idlib, Anadolu Agency reported, without providing further details.

“The situation there is of critical sensitivity,” Ibrahim Kalin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesperson, said after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

Turkey insists it has no plans to abandon or move any of the military posts it set up in Idlib, despite the airstrikes and the fighting around Morek. “All observation posts will continue operations where they are located right now,” Kalin said, adding that deals to halt military operations around Idlib had to be respected. “Otherwise, both the violation of this agreement and the resulting humanitarian drama will be inevitable.”Turkey’s determination to stand by all 12 of its military posts in Idlib was reiterated this week by the government, and a senior security official told Reuters Ankara was standing by its troops on the ground. “Whichever observation post needs it, support is provided,” the official said.

However, that will prove increasingly challenging for Turkey unless there is a change of course by Moscow or Damascus, which has repeatedly said it is committed to recapturing every inch of Syrian territory.

Erdogan will speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin about Idlib as soon as possible, Kalin told reporters.

“The end state is clear,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former Turkish diplomat. Pressure on the southernmost Turkish observation posts - those which are the furthest inside Syria - would spread to other Turkish positions as the Syrian army offensive continues, and Turkey would likely pull some troops back.

“It was a matter of time,” Ulgen said. “To me the surprise is that it happened so soon after the S-400 [missile deal between Turkey and Russia] episode. It proves how little leverage Turkey has gained with Russia.”

The United Nations says more than 500,000 people have been uprooted since the Syrian army began its offensive in late April, most of them escaping deeper into the rebel bastion and toward the border.

Turkey, which opened its border at the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 and now hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, is determined to avoid another influx of civilians - or fighters. It has built a wall along the 800-kilometer Syrian border and says it has identified locations inside Syria to shelter a possible wave of people fleeing the fighting in Idlib.

“If there is this kind of movement to our borders, we will take action and create shelters where we are going to accommodate displaced people outside our borders,” Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said this week.

He did not specify whether the camps would be in Idlib province or Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria around the towns of Azaz, Al-Bab and Jarablus.

Damascus said Syrian authorities opened Thursday a “humanitarian corridor” so civilians from a besieged, rebel-held area in the north of Hama province could leave and move to parts of the country controlled by the government. The Foreign Ministry said the corridor was opened in the village of Soran, on the southern edge of the rebel-held area that has been under siege by Syrian troops since Wednesday. Those who come out will receive food, shelter and health care, state news agency SANA said.

Naji Mustafa, spokesperson for the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front rebel coalition, dismissed the opening of the latest corridor as an attempt to hit morale.

“It’s impossible today for people to head toward the Syrian regime’s areas. These people have escaped the regime,” he said.

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