Turkey sends forces, sets up positions in Syria’s Idlib province to contain Kurdish militia
Turkey’s military on Friday confirmed it had started setting up observation posts in northwest Syria’s Idlib province in a deployment that appears partly aimed at containing a Kurdish militia.
The General Staff, chief command of Turkey’s armed forces, said the joint operation with Syrian rebel groups is part of a deal it reached last month with Russia and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan to reduce fighting between insurgents and the Syrian government.
The army said its forces in Syria were conducting operations in line with rules of engagement agreed with Russia and Iran.
Rebels and a witness said a convoy of about 30 military vehicles was sent into rebel-held northwest Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib. Video distributed by the Turkish army showed what it said was the convoy being deployed on Thursday night, with military vehicles travelling along a road.
A senior rebel official involved in the operation, said the deployment was also intended to rein in the Kurdish YPG militia, which holds the adjacent Afrin region.
“[It is] in line with Astana 6 resolutions to ensure the area is protected from Russian and regime bombing and to foil any attempt by the separatist YPG militias to illegally seize any territory,” said Mustafa Sejari, an official in a Free Syrian Army rebel group.
Broadcaster CNN Turk reported machine gun fire in Idlib countryside near the Ogulpinar border post in Turkey’s Reyhanli district, but it was not clear which forces were clashing.
The convoy was heading towards Sheikh Barakat, a high area overlooking rebel-held territory and the Kurdish YPG-controlled canton of Afrin, witnesses said.
President Tayyip Erdogan announced the deployment on Saturday, saying Turkey was conducting a “serious operation” with rebel groups it supports, as part of the Astana “de-escalation” deal.
Turkey has supported rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout the war. But since last year Ankara has focused on securing its border, both from jihadists and from Kurdish forces that control much of the frontier area inside Syria.
Sejari said it was important to contain the YPG to prevent any new military offensive reaching the Mediterranean, something that would require it to capture swathes of mountains held by rebels and Syria’s army.
“Today we can say that the dream of the separatists to reach the sea and enter Idlib and then to Jisr al-Shaqour and the coastal mountains has become a dream,” he said.
Turkey regards the YPG as an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish group inside Turkey that has been waging armed insurgency against Ankara for three decades.
As the strongest part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the YPG has received military aid from Turkey’s Nato ally the US to fight Islamic State.