Turkey has softened its hawkish tone following military confrontations with the Syrian forces in rebel-held Idlib, where 14 Turkish soldiers were killed over the past two weeks, Reuters reported on Thursday.
Speaking to fellow NATO ministers in Brussels, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkey’s aim in sending some 5,000 additional troops to Idlib was “to secure a lasting ceasefire”.
Akar added that Turkey would also use force against rebel groups, which have been backed by it, if they violate a ceasefire agreed between Ankara and Moscow on January 12.
“Force will be used against those violating the ceasefire, including radicals, and every measure will be taken,” Akar said.
Akar’s remarks were interpreted as a response to Russian criticism, which said Turkey was breaching the 2018 Astana agreement under which it is obliged to neutralize rebel militants there.
Instead, Turkey has backed opposition fighters trying to stop an offensive by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that aims to regain control of the region.
On Wednesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said they had sent a message to Ankara-backed rebels to refrain from violating the ceasefire in order not to give the al-Assad regime an excuse to attack again.
However, on the same day, Erdogan also said his country was determined to push back the Syrian forces from Turkey’s observation posts in Idlib by the end of the month, giving an ultimatum to the regime to withdraw from the posts.
On Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry released a statement, calling on Turkey to refrain from provocative statements about Idlib, referring to the remarks by Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Erdogan’s ally.
Bahceli held Russia responsible for the latest Syrian attacks on Turkish troops, saying further Ankara should plan to “enter Damascus.”
“We believe that in the context of the tense situation in the north-west of Syria, it is worth exercising restraint and, in particular, refraining from provocative comments that do not contribute to a constructive dialogue between our countries,” the Russian statement read.
The Russia-backed al-Assad forces are slowly advancing to retake Idlib, the last major region in the hands of rebels who are a mix of nationalist factions and Islamist militants.