Idlib gov’t chief urges Turkey to step up efforts in defending against Assad attack

Turkey must do more to shield northwest Syria from a major attack as Russian-backed Syrian government forces will be able to advance all the way to the Turkish border if they pierce rebel defences, a top opposition official told Reuters.

The Syrian army, backed by Russia, last month launched an aerial and ground assault in the region as it seeks to gain control of the last big stretch of rebel-held territory in Syria’s northwest, ending a ceasefire negotiated by Russia and Turkey last September.

Opposition fighters gathered in the Idlib region from all over Syria would be able resist the onslaught, Fawaz Hilal, head of the “Salvation Government” that runs Idlib province, told Reuters, but called on Turkey to defend its dozen military bases in the Idlib region.

“We hope that the Turkish side will ... defend these positions they set up and the areas they entered and prevent Russian and Syrian jets from flying in the areas where they are present, and the shelling of surrounding areas,” Hilal said.

A total of 229 civilians have been killed and injured 727 since the assault began April 28, according to The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), a U.S.-based medical NGO.

Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian wing, is taking part in the defence, along with Turkey-backed groups, Reuters said.

Turkey on Saturday sent fresh supplies of weaponry to these groups to help them repel the assault, according to rebel sources. 

Much of the recent shelling has hit an area that was declared a demilitarized “buffer zone” last year by Russia and Turkey, creating concern for a new refugee influx. Turkey currently hosts close to 4 million Syrian refugees.

Turkish positions in the region, established in the hope their presence would provide protection for the people, “are not able to protect themselves today,” Hilal told Reuters, adding that Ankara should clarify “their role and what they want from these positions.”