As Turkish Army deployed tanks along the border of Syrian province of Idlib, its reconnaissance team commenced scouting the territory in order to deploy troops inside the largest remaining rebel stronghold in the country.
The deployment is part of the agreement reached in Astana, Kazakhstan, mid-September, between Turkey, Iran and Russia. Under the deal, each country agreed to deploy its troops to four established de-escalation zones in Syria in order to maintain ceasefire.
Idlib proved to be the most problematic area, given that this territory is contested by several rebel groups. In late July, hardline jihadist alliance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) took control over most of the province, while some areas remained under control of moderate rebels, mainly Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The deal stipulates that deployed troops will maintain observer status, but nonetheless, it seems that Turkish army may serve as a source of encouragement and logistical support to the allied FSA on the group’s mission to address Ankara’s and its own sources of concern.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Monday that FSA would launch an operation in Afrin region along the Turkish border “to prevent the formation of terrorist cantons” established by the Syrian Kurdish organizations affiliated with banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party – Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.
“We are not intervening in the domestic affairs of any country. We are just trying to secure our own home affairs… How safe we can be when there is chaos in Syria?” Erdogan said on Sunday.
There have also been reports that Turkey intends to use its affiliated rebel groups to oust HTS from Idlib. Although the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed the Turkish military and HTS had clashed near the village of Kafr Lusin on Sunday, a day later they seemed to nominally cooperate. Local sources told Reuters the Turkish military vehicles were escorted into Idlib by a convoy of fighters from the group belonging to HTS.
The rebel commander told the news agency the reconnaissance team went to Sheikh Barakat, a location that overlooks both rebel-held areas of Aleppo province, bordering Idlib, and the Kurdish-controlled area of Afrin.
As the Turkish troops entered Idlib, a new group, dubbed Ansar al-Furqan fi Bilad al-Sham announced its formation, vowing to fight both Turkey and the Free Syrian Army.
While HTS and Turkey are avoiding conflict at the moment, the jihadist alliance is still engaged in clashes on the front in southern Idlib and eastern Hama. Following the Astana agreement, HTS launched an offensive in order to “demolish and defeat” the ceasefire in the region.
The operation was met with hard response from Syrian government forces and its allies, with heavy bombardment in the area. According to the latest reports, Russian warplanes launched new raids on Khan Sheikhoun city and the town of Al Tamanah in southern Idlib on Monday.
At the moment, HTS is also clashing with the Islamic State (ISIS), which captured more than a dozen of villages from HTS, mere days after the Syrian government victoriously announced the ISIS militants were ousted from Hama province. According to the latest reports, HTS managed to regain several villages in the area, including Buyud, Andarin, Qasr Ibn Wardan and Muslokhah.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and HTS claimed the militants who recaptured the countryside were the same fighters who had fought against the government forces several days ago, meaning they crossed into rebel-held territory through government-held areas.
This prompted HTS to accuse Syrian government and Russia of “anti rebel conspiracy” for allowing ISIS militants to cross into their territory.
De-escalation zones agreed in Astana include Idlib, Eastern Ghouta, northern countryside of Homs province, and the southern front stretching from Syrian-Jordanian border to the countryside of Suwaida in the Druze Mountains, including the town of Al Quneitra. With the exception of the southern front, there are intense clashes between rebels and government forces in all of these areas.