Turkish Defence Ministry denies Idlib withdrawal

(Releads with Turkish Defence Ministry statement)

Turkey’s Defence Ministry rejected reports that it was withdrawing troops from towns in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province after rebel fighters killed two soldiers on Thursday.

“The Turkish Armed Forces is continuing its planned deployment according to the ceasefire beginning March 6 in the Idlib de-escalation zone,” the ministry said in a tweet on Friday afternoon. “The news published by certain media organisations on unit withdrawals does not reflect the truth.”

On Friday, Al Masdar, a pro-Syrian government news site, cited Syrian opposition activists as saying Turkish troops had withdrawn from Sarmin and Binnish, two towns west of Idlib city centre and within 10 km of the M4 east-west highway.

The report came after the Turkish Defence Ministry said members of what it called a radical group had killed the two soldiers in a de-escalation zone demarcated by Turkey and Russia in a ceasefire signed on March 5. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

That ceasefire agreement halted a military operation that Turkey launched to retaliate against an attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces after they killed dozens of Turkish troops on Feb. 27.

But the deal allowed Assad to keep territory captured in his months-long onslaught on the last opposition-held province in the country, while organising joint patrols of Russian and Turkish troops along the M4 highway to police a newly delimited de-escalation zone.

Turkey backs some rebel groups in Idlib and wants to prevent a Syrian government offensive that could drive millions of Syrians to its borders. But other rebel groups, notably the powerful jihadist umbrella group Tahrir al-Sham, rejected the ceasefire and have reportedly continued attacking Syrian government forces.