Turkey supplies weapons to Syrian rebels facing Russian-backed assault - Syrian sources

Turkey has provided a number of mainstream Syrian rebels it backs with fresh supplies of weaponry to help them repel a major Russian-backed assault in the war-torn country, Reuters reported on Saturday, citing senior opposition officials and rebel sources.

The Syrian army, backed by Russia, last month launched an aerial and ground assault 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.

After failing to persuade Russia in recent meetings of a joint working group that it should end its escalation to avert a major influx of refugees pouring into Turkey, Turkey has stepped up supplies in recent days, two senior opposition figures told Reuters.

The move signals Ankara’s readiness to preserve its influence in northwestern Syria, where it has increased its troop presence along the border, according to a senior rebel commander.

Ankara and Moscow came to an agreement last September for Turkey to create a demilitarised zone and remove extremist fighters such as those of al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to prevent attacks on Syrian government forces and infrastructure. 

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, however, launched an offensive on Idlib early this month, supported by Russian airstrikes, after HTS gained control of most of the province in recent months.

Reuters quoted a rebel and witness who said that overnight, a Turkish military convoy arrived in a base in northern Hama near rebel-held Jabal al Zawiya, where Russian and Syrian jets have been pounding for weeks.

Dozens of armoured vehicles, Grad rocket launchers, anti-tank guided missiles and so-called TOW missiles, have also been delivered, rolling back some army gains and retake the strategically located town of Kfar Nabouda, it said, quoting one senior opposition figure.

Captain Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), did not confirm or deny any new supplies by Turkey, Reuter said, quoting the spokesman as saying rebels had long had a large arsenal of weapons from anti-tank to armoured vehicles “alongside material and logistical support’’ from Turkey.

The Syrian army has announced plans for intensify attacks on what it called terrorist hideouts in the northwest, Reuters said.

Turkey, home to some 4 million refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians, fears a further spill-over, among other concerns, in the event of an all-out assault on Idlib.