Turkish military fortifies positions in Idlib after Syrian regime bombardment

Turkish troops are conducting patrols and fortifying observation points in the Syrian province of Idlib after Syrian regime forces bombarded the province with Russian support, London-based pan-Arab news outlet Asharq al-Awsat reported on Thursdayv.

Turkey and Russia signed a deal last September to prevent a regime onslaught against the rebel forces in Idlib, which is the last opposition-controlled province in the country.

In May, after rebel groups considered extremists by Moscow rose to dominance in Idlib and captured neighbouring villages, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched an intense bombing campaign on the province, targeting civilian residences and infrastructure as well as rebel outposts and killing hundreds.

Russia has rejected criticism for the bloody nature of the operations, saying it was not acceptable for the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group to be in control of the province and that this breached the terms of the agreement with Turkey.

Asharq al-Awsat quoted Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as saying Turkish forces would remain at their observation posts in Idlib despite the escalation.

Turkey has 12 observation points around the province, which the Arab newspaper said were being reinforced.

The Turkish military transferred arms and munitions to militants in Hama, another area bombarded by Syrian regime forces last month, helping them take back a strategic town from the Syrian army, Al-Monitor’s Russia editor Maxim A. Suchkov wrote in a piece published on Wednesday.

Arms have also been handed over to rebels in Idlib, he said, adding that pro-Kremlin experts had expressed outrage after HTS used sophisticated weaponry likely to have come from Turkey against Russian forces, though there is no indication it was supplied directly.

A senior diplomat told Suchkov his belief that the United States was “seeking every opportunity to drive a wedge between us and the Turks.”

The situation in Idlib, he said, could have an impact on Turkey’s purchase of Russian-built S-400 missile defence systems, which was agreed with Moscow in December 2017 and is due to be completed by October. Washington strongly objects to the deal, citing security concerns, and has threatened sanctions on Turkey if it goes through with the deal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reaffirmed his intention to go through with the deal this week, though a pro-government columnist later said the delivery of the S-400s could be delayed until after a planned meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the G-20 summit in Osaka later this month.

Erdoğan spoke to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, last week, with the two reportedly discussing the S-400 deal.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said this week Russian and Turkish military personnel are in close contact to prevent an escalation in Idlib.