Turkish forces are preparing to enter Idlib province to support rebel forces opposing both the Syrian regime and jihadist insurgents, the Turkish president has said.
Idlib and surrounding areas in north-west Syria are among the largest strongholds for rebels fighting the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, but it is now largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group led by al-Qaida’s former Syria affiliate.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “We are taking new steps to ensure security in Idlib. Today there’s a serious operation in Idlib and this will continue, because we have to extend a hand to our brothers in Idlib.”
He said Turkish troops were yet to reach Syria, but fighters from the Free Syria Army were carrying out the operation.
Many Syrians had fled to Idlib from the neighbouring Aleppo province, which was rocked by heavy fighting last year, and Turkey intended to support them, Erdoğan said.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is not party to a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran for the safe zone in Idlib province, one of four such “de-escalation” zones in Syria.
“We will absolutely not allow the creation of a terror corridor along our borders,” the Turkish leader said.
Media reports have pointed to a heavy deployment of military hardware and personnel by the Turkish army to its southern border area in recent weeks.
Turkey earlier this year ended its months-long Euphrates Shield operation against jihadists and Kurdish forces in Aleppo province that involved both the Turkish army and Syrian rebels.
Meanwhile, a series of airstrikes by Russian jets in the past 24 hours had killed about 120 Islamic State fighters and 60 foreign mercenaries in Syria, the defence ministry in Moscow said on Saturday.
Two waves of airstrikes on Khan Sheikhun, a town in Idlib province controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham forces, killed at least 13 civilians in the same period, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the observatory, said the strikes were probably carried out by the Syrian air force. The town was the target of a sarin gas attack in April that killed at least 87 people, 30 of them children.
Donald Trump blamed the Syrian government for the attack and ordered cruise missile strikes on the airbase from which he said it had been launched.