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Turkey arms Syrian rebels facing Russian-backed offensive

Turkey has sent fresh supplies of armored vehicles and weaponry to a number of mainstream Syrian rebels it supports to help them fight out a major Russian-backed attack in the war-torn country, Reuters reported on Saturday, citing senior opposition officials and rebel sources.

The Syrian army which seeks to obtain control of the last big stretch of rebel-held territory in Syria’s northwest is backed by Russia in its large aerial and ground assault in the region.

Last month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched the assault arguing that Syrian rebels had breached an existing ceasefire that is negotiated by Russia and Turkey last September.

By bombarding Idlib and adjacent areas, the president has triggered an exodus of some 180,000 civilians as part of the biggest escalation between Assad and his enemies in the territory since last summer.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which includes the former Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, controls most of Idlib since January.

Ankara’s move came after the country’s failed attempt to convince Russia that it should end its escalation in the region to avert a major influx of refugees pouring into Turkey, Reuters quoted two senior opposition figures as saying.

According to a senior rebel commander, Ankara signaled through the step it has taken that it is ready to preserve its influence in northwestern Syria.

Reuters said in the report that Turkish officials were not immediately available to comment on the issue.

Last September Ankara and Moscow made an agreement to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone, remove extremist fighters such as those of HTS and prohibit acts of aggression in the territory so as to prevent attacks on Syrian government forces and infrastructure.

Turkey previously called on both Russia and the Syrian government to halt attacks in Idlib, which were launched early this month and withdraw to the boundaries specified under the treaty.

Quoting a rebel and a witness, Reuters reported that a military convoy from Turkey arrived overnight in a base in northern Hama near rebel-held Jabal al-Zawiya where Russian and Syrian jets have been pounding for the past few weeks.

A senior opposition figure told Reuters that the supply of dozens of armored vehicles, Grad rocket launchers, anti-tank guided missiles, and so-called TOW missiles helped roll back some Syrian army gains and retake the strategically located town of Kfar Nabouda.

Until a CIA-led program of military support to help moderate rebels was suspended in 2017, the TOW missile which was extended by Western and Arab enemies of Assad had been the most effective weapon of rebels battling the Syrian president during the conflict.

Reuters cited a Western intelligence source who stated that the US had given the green light for the mainstream rebels supported by Ankara to use the TOW missiles, which had been in storage in the latest campaign.

Criticizing the latest campaign of Russia in which it saw signs that Assad has used poison gas, Washington warned that it would respond “quickly and appropriately” if it were proven.

The Syrian president has denied claims such as this throughout the civil war.

Captain Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) told Reuters that rebels had long had a big arsenal of weapons from anti-tank to armored vehicles “alongside material and logistical support” from Turkey.

However, Mustafa did not confirm or deny any new supplies by the Turkish government.

On Saturday, the Syrian army said that it continued to intensify its offensive on “terrorist hideouts” in the northwest.

Major Youssef Hamoud, a spokesman for the Ankara-backed rebel grouping called the National Army announced that they have joined mainstream rebel factions along the frontlines to repel the attack.

For the first time in years, Reuters said, the rebels’ readiness to look beyond the differences that once led to deadly fighting has united jihadists and mainstream rebels.

Hosting some 3.6 million Syrians, Turkey fears a further spill-over in the event of an all-out assault on Idlib, among other concerns.

180,000 civilians escape from Idlib as rebel and Syrian forces clash

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