Turkey will retaliate in “self-defense, in the strongest way” possible in the event of an attack by Syrian regime forces Syrian on Turkish military posts in the Idlib region, Turkish defense ministry warned on Tuesday.
“The regime’s attacks on Idlib are massacring innocent civilians and causing a humanitarian tragedy. A response will be given in self-defense to any attempts that would jeopardize the security of our observation and control posts in the region,” the ministry said on Twitter.
Russia-backed Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday entered Maaret al-Numan, a strategic town in Syria’s Idlib region, located on a highway linking the capital Damascus to the country’s second-largest city, Aleppo.
Syrian regime forces have been on the offensive since April 2019, stepping up their attacks on the region in December when they had surrounded one of the Turkish army posts in Idlib, the last major opposition-held enclave in northwest Syria.
In mid-January, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkey would not be abandoning the surrounded outpost and instead strengthened it.
Ankara, which backs the rebels, holds twelve military outposts in the region in line with the 2018 Sochi accord concluded with Russia and Iran.
Despite the deal and many subsequent inconclusive ceasefires, the coalition forces of Russia, Syria, and Iran have been carrying out military strikes in the region in a bid to remove jihadist militants and heavy arms.
In terms of the Sochi accord, removing jihadists and heavy weaponry was Turkey’s responsibility. According to Russia, Syria, and Iran, Turkey has failed to uphold its part of the deal.
Since early December, some 358,000 Syrians, mostly women, and children have been displaced due to the intensified attacks by the trio – Russia, Iran, and Syria.
An additional 38,000 people fled violence in neighboring Aleppo between January 15-19, according to the United Nations (U.N.) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
With the latest wave of displacement, an already dire humanitarian situation in the makeshift camps near the Turkish border has been deteriorating, the U.N. officials said.
On Tuesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said they were closely monitoring the situation in Idlib in expectation of a sustainable peace there.
“There is a mobilization [of people] towards our border now. We have taken precautions in that regard. We have been setting up shelters instead of tents for the people [on the move],” Erdogan said, speaking to reporters in a joint press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall.
On Monday, Erdogan talked to U.S. President Donald Trump in a phone call, discussing the developments in Syria and Libya.
On the same day, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the “ruthless actions by Russia, the Iranian regime, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime,” which hamper efforts to establish a ceasefire in northern Syria.
“We condemn these barbaric attacks and call for an immediate ceasefire,” Pompeo said.
Middle East Eye (MEE) news portal quoted Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman and founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a London-based human rights monitor, told MEE that at least 850,000 people were displaced within Idlib in 2019.
He suggested Turkey could have withdrawn from the de-escalation deal in protest against the attacks by the trio targeting the civilians.
Abdul Ghany claimed further that Ankara was specifically interested in the security of its posts in the region. That was the reason for the Turkish officials’ contact with their Russian and Syrian counterparts.
Abdul Ghany was referring to a meeting between Hakan Fidan, the chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), and Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, in Moscow earlier this month.
“I believe that the meeting does not exceed the security level yet, there is no indication of political coordination between Damascus and Ankara,” added Abdul Ghany.
Speaking to MEE on condition of anonymity, the Turkish officials said Ankara would not further risk the Turkish soldiers’ lives to dislodge Islamist militants from Idlib or to confront the al-Assad forces.
The unnamed officials also claimed that Turkey was trying to support the rebels and the civilians trapped in the Idlib region as much as possible, emphasizing a need for broader international support against the trio.
Similarly, Turkey’s actions in northern Syria are because of its security concerns, Muin Naim, an Istanbul-based specialist in Turkish affairs, told MEE.
Since 2016, Turkey has launched three military incursions into northern Syria against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is considered as a terrorist offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed insurgent group in Turkey.
“In politics, there is no absolute hostility or absolute friendship. Turkey is primarily concerned with protecting its interests and then influencing the future of Syria,” Naim said.
Turkish interests in attacking the YPG territory had often converged with the Syrian interests, according to Samir Nashar, a senior figure within the Syrian opposition in Turkey.
Nashar claimed the Turkish attacks had enabled the Syrian government forces to re-enter the areas under opposition control.
“In exchange for [Turkey’s] Euphrates Shield [operation in 2016], Damascus forces took control of Aleppo in late 2016, which caused an imbalance between government forces and opposition forces,” Nashar added.