Turkey starting 'serious operation' in Syria's Idlib, says Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday "a serious operation" was beginning in Syria's Idlib, and a Syrian rebel official said his group was preparing to enter the area with the backing of Turkish forces.
Idlib and surrounding areas of northwest Syria are among the largest bastions for rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but have increasingly fallen under the sway of Al-Qaeda-linked rebel factions.
"Today there's a serious operation in Idlib and it will continue, because we have to extend a hand to our brothers in Idlib and to our brothers who arrived in Idlib," Erdogan said.
"Now this step has been taken, and it is underway," he said, adding that Turkish forces were not yet involved and that it was a rebel operation so far, but that Free Syrian Army forces had already begun the operation.
Video sent to Middle East Eye from an activist in Idlib appeared to show forces entering the border village of Atme from the district of Reyhanli:
The Hamza Brigade, also part of Euphrates Shield, posted video online of what it said was a convoy of its forces heading for Idlib.
Idlib fell to a coalition of rebel forces in 2014, but since 2017 the province has been dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a rebrand of al-Nusra Front, the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
Social media reports on Saturday morning said there had been gunfire on the Syria-Turkey border between HTS and Turkish forces.
In a video statement posted online, the Hamza Brigade announced its intention to drive HTS from Idlib:
Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in the Euphrates Shield campaign that Ankara launched in northern Syria last year are ready to cross into northwest Syria from Turkey, Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in the Liwa al-Mutasem group said.
"The Free Syrian Army with support from Turkish troops is in full readiness to enter the area, but until this moment there is no movement," he said.
Another FSA rebel in the Euphrates Shield campaign told Reuters he believed an incursion into northwest Syria was imminent.
Residents near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey in Syria sent Reuters photographs of what they said was a section of the frontier wall being removed by the Turkish authorities.
Idlib province is among the four "de-escalation zones" announced in May by the Syrian government's international allies and rebels to set up truces in various parts of Syria.
On 15 September, Russia and Iran, allies of the Syrian government, and Turkey, backed by the rebels, announced that they would jointly deploy forces in Idlib, without setting a date.
HTS has pledged to keep fighting Syrian government forces and their allies, casting doubt on the de-escalation agreement, but Ankara has worked to lure militants from it, and two groups have defected from the alliance.
The initiative must pave the way for a lasting ceasefire in the country, ravaged by six years of war that have left more than 330,000 dead and millions displaced and refugees.
Turkey conducted a military operation in northern Syria between August 2016 and March 2017 in order to repel the Islamic State group and the Kurdish militias that Ankara considers terrorists.
Since the end of the operation, Ankara has often said it is ready to launch a new military operation in Syria, saying it will "not allow" the creation of a "terrorist corridor" on its border.
Erdogan said on Saturday that Turkey will not abandon the many civilians who fled from Aleppo to Idlib, where Assad government forces and Russia have been carrying out continuous air strikes in recent weeks, leaving hundreds dead.