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Turkey reinforces military observation posts in Syria's Idlib

Concrete blocks transported into southern areas of opposition-held province following attacks by pro-government forces
A Turkish convoy is seen on a main highway between Damascus and Aleppo in Idlib in August 2019 (AFP)
By in
Istanbul, Turkey

Turkish forces in Syria's opposition-held Idlib province are reinforcing 12 ceasefire observation stations following recent attacks by Russian and Syrian government forces around the towns of Maaret al-Noman and Khan Sheikhoun.

Trucks belonging to the Turkish military have been carrying four-metre cement blocks into southern areas of Idlib such as Tell Touqan, Sarmin, Morek, Zawiya, Ishtabraq and Zaytan.

A Turkish military official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to government protocol, told Middle East Eye that strengthening the observation stations wasn’t a new commitment and had been ongoing for a while.

The Hurriyet newspaper on Tuesday reported that the new shipments were intended to create a secondary security line around the observation posts to increase the safety of the Turkish military missions.

Turkey established the observation stations after a ceasefire deal with Russia last year to prevent clashes between Syrian opposition groups and pro-government forces.

Since then, Syrian government forces including Iran-backed militia fighters and the Russian air force have from time to time attacked opposition enclaves to put pressure on Ankara over the controlling presence in Idlib of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, the coalition of Syrian opposition groups that is dominated by factions formerly aligned with al-Qaeda.

Turkey has so far managed to avert a government offensive, warning Moscow and Tehran that a full-scale attack would result in a humanitarian catastrophe. Parties reached a deal in Sochi last September in which they agreed to create a demilitarised zone by removing heavy weaponry and radical forces, including HTS, from Idlib.

“Turkey has reemphasised its decisiveness to prevent a humanitarian disaster by further strengthening its observation points in Idlib,” said Omer Ozkizilcik, the editor in chief of Suriye Gundemi, which covers the Syrian war.

“Turkey and Russia seem to have little interest in risking an escalation in Idlib, especially before the expected US withdrawal [of forces from Syria]. Therefore, both sides agreed to continue their work in line with the agreed ceasefire, but the Assad regime tries to escalate by artillery shells.”

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s patience seems to be wearing thin.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syrian opposition monitoring organisation, reported on Thursday that pro-Syrian government forces continued to hit the so-called demilitarised zone agreed by Turkey and Russia with more than 20 rocket shells, targeting the northern countryside of Hama and Kafr Zita, resulting in the death of a woman and several injuries.

The attack follows a Syrian government bombardment that killed 18 civilians in northwest Syria last weekend.

During a summit on Syria in Sochi last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed to conduct joint Russian-Turkish patrols to finally end the clashes in the area. Local media reported on Wednesday that Turkey and Russia had reached a new formula to begin the patrols.

But Ozkizilcik was wary of the reports. He said, “realities on the ground clearly indicate that this is still far away from being doable and both states have to achieve a certain amount of progress in Idlib”.