Archive for the ‘ Syria ’ Category

Turkey reinforcements enter Syria’s Idlib

Tuesday 25/09/2018

SARAQIB – Turkish troop reinforcements entered Syria’s rebel bastion of Idlib on Tuesday, an AFP correspondent reported, a week after a deal between Ankara and Moscow averted a government offensive.

Around 35 military vehicles traveled south down the main highway near the town of Saraqib after midnight.

The convoy was accompanied by pro-Ankara rebels of the National Liberation Front (NLF), who control part of the enclave on the Turkish border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the forces deployed to several Turkish positions around the northwestern province.

Since last year, Turkish troops have manned 12 monitoring positions in the rebel zone under a de-escalation agreement between Turkey, Russia and fellow regime ally Iran.

Last week, Ankara and Moscow announced a new agreement for a demilitarized zone along the horse-shoe shaped front line between the rebels and government troops.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, controls more than half of the rebel zone, while NLF fighters hold sway over most of the rest.

The agreement gives Turkey the responsibility to ensure that all fighters in the planned demilitarized zone hand over their heavy weapons by October 10 and that the more radical among them withdraw by October 15.

The agreement also provides for Turkish and Russian troops patrol the buffer zone.

Last week, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would have to send reinforcements to provide the numbers needed to conduct the patrols.

The Syrian civil war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/turkey-reinforcements-enter-syrias-idlib.

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Russia puts deep roots in Syria, warns West against meddling

September 26, 2018

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The same day that Russian diplomats struck a deal with Turkey over a demilitarized zone in Syria’s last rebel-run region, dozens of Russian businessmen were flying home from Damascus, contracts in hand for trade with a postwar Syria.

Whatever happens to the rebels in Idlib province, Russia is determined to keep Syria solidly anchored in its sphere of influence over the long term — both as a foothold in the Middle East and as a warning to the U.S. and its allies against future interference.

“Russia wants … a new Mideast security order,” said Emile Hokayem, Middle East security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. While Russia is blamed for widespread death and destruction as it supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, its forces have proven decisive in the international struggle against the Islamic State group, giving Moscow a credibility that Western powers lack. “Their intervention yielded much better returns than anyone expected,” Hokayem said.

Now the central challenge facing U.S. and other Western diplomats huddling about Syria this week at the United Nations is how to stay relevant. European Union diplomats are meeting the U.N. Syria envoy Wednesday, and France is hosting a meeting Thursday of the “Small Group” that’s trying to weigh in on Syria’s future, after years of failed efforts to back the Syrian opposition.

Russia isn’t invited to either meeting but still has the upper hand. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, is working to persuade other world powers to endorse a Russian-Turkish accord reached last week to create a buffer zone and avert an all-out battle for the last Syrian opposition stronghold in Idlib.

Even as Russia flaunts its diplomatic success, it’s also securing a military future with Syria. Russia announced Monday it’s selling S-200 missile systems to Syria. A longtime client of Russian weapons manufacturers since well before the war, Syria also was a reliable trading partner. And Moscow is furthering that relationship by rebuilding roads, pipes and skyscrapers wiped out by seven years of war — including destruction wrought by Russia’s own weapons.

A group of 38 Russian companies took part in the Damascus International Fair earlier this month. It was at least the fourth event in the past year aimed at reviving Russian trade with Syria — and Russian companies are heading back to Syria in early October for a conference on rebuilding the country.

Syria’s neighbors are similarly active, but in Russia’s case, analysts say, the economic activity is part of an influence strategy. Russia, for example, wants to rebuild Syria’s train network. “Russia built it in the first place, and wants to rebuild this and strategic economic ties,” said independent Russian analyst Vyacheslav Matuzov.

Russian companies are seeking a diverse trade base, with food, farming and energy deals, according to the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Chamber Vice President Vladimir Padalko described “the firm intention of Russian business not just to restore past trade cooperation between our countries, but also actively move forward.”

But Russia doesn’t want to foot the bill for the huge cost of reconstruction, so it is seeking Western help, notably in Lavrov’s meetings at the U.N. Hokayem said prospects of that are low, but Russia is still “in the driver’s seat” in Syria.

“Russia is always a step ahead, and has a higher tolerance level” for ups and downs in the Syria war because Putin doesn’t face serious domestic opposition. Russia’s Astana peace process with Iran and Turkey has been so successful, Hokayem said, that “the U.N. envoy has adopted (it) as his own.”

The next few weeks will be critical for Syria — and for Russia’s footprint. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told The Associated Press this week that October is going to be “a very important month” both for Idlib and for U.N.-led efforts to move toward peace.

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

Turkey, Russia agree on demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib

September 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The leaders of Russia and Turkey agreed Monday to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region, the last major stronghold of anti-government rebels where fears had been running high of a devastating offensive by government forces.

The zone will be established by Oct. 15 and be 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) deep, with troops from Russia and NATO-member Turkey conducting coordinated patrols, President Vladimir Putin said at the end of a more than three-hour meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi.

The deal marked a significant agreement between the two leaders and effectively delays an offensive by Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies, one that Turkey fears would create a humanitarian crisis near its border.

Putin said “radical militants” would have to withdraw from the zone. Among them would be those from the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee. The group denies it is linked to al-Qaida.

It was not immediately clear exactly how the deal would be implemented in the province, which is home to more than 3 million Syrians and an estimated 60,000 rebel fighters from various groups. “I believe that with this agreement we prevented a great humanitarian crisis in Idlib,” Erdogan said at a joint briefing with Putin.

Turkey has been eager to prevent an assault by Syrian government troops in the province. Putin said he believed the agreement on Idlib could hasten final resolution of Syria’s long and devastating civil war.

“We agreed that practical implementation of the steps we plan will give a fresh impetus to the process of political settlement of the Syrian conflict and will make it possible to invigorate efforts in the Geneva format and will help restore peace in Syria,” he said.

Asked whether Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government agreed with the Putin-Erdogan plan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters in Sochi that “in the coming hours, we will agree with them on all the positions put forth in this document.”

Ahmed Ramadan, a spokesman for the Syrian political opposition in exile, said the agreement offered Russia a chance to walk back its threat against Idlib and represented a success for diplomatic pressure from Turkey and the United States, which was also against an offensive.

Ramadan also said the deal offers the Syrian government and Russia one of their main demands, which is securing the highway that passes through Idlib and links northern Syria with other cities. That was one of the government’s strategic aims in an offensive in Idlib.

“Turkey offered Putin a ladder with which to climb down from the tree, threatening a military offensive in Idlib that had little chance for success,” Ramadan said in a series of text messages with The Associated Press. “The Turkish and U.S. serious pressures were the reason behind Russia abstaining from the offensive and offering an air cover which means Iran alone won’t be able to carry out the offensive with the overstretched forces of the Assad regime.”

He said Russia has also refrained from its accusations that the rebels are all terrorists. “Russia swallowed all its accusations,” he said. “Turkey is in a strong position.” He said the zone would be enforced by Turkish patrols on the opposition side and Russian patrols on the government side.

Ramadan added that the opposition was now stronger than when it was after losses in Daraa and Ghouta. He said the Russians reached the agreement without negotiating it first with the Syrian government, pointing to Shoigu’s comments that Moscow will discuss the deal with the Syrian government later.

Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed rebel group Faylaq al-Sham, thanked Erdogan for preventing an offensive and giving the rebels time to defend their rebellion and people. Millions “of civilians in Idlib are in peace,” he tweeted.

He said he was confident that the deal “would not have been possible without the steadfastness of our people and fighters. Thank you, Erdogan.” Capt. Naji al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed umbrella group of opposition fighters known as the National Front for Liberation, said diplomatic efforts have prevented a wide-offensive on Idlib but that his group still needs to learn the details of the deal.

He said the nature of the demilitarized zone and how it would be implemented are not yet clear. “We need details,” he said, adding that the Assad government has broken many agreements before, including the Russian-Turkey negotiated de-escalation zones.

“We will remain ready for fighting,” he said. Russia has called Idlib a hotbed of terrorism and had said the Syrian government has the right to retake control of it. In recent weeks, Russian officials repeatedly claimed rebels in Idlib were preparing a chemical weapons attack that could be blamed on the Syrian government and prompt a retaliatory strike by the West.

Turkey had appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements to its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

The International Rescue Committee, a New-York based humanitarian group, said the people of Idlib “will rest easier tonight knowing that they are less likely to face an impending assault.” However, Lorraine Bramwell, the group’s Syria country director, cautioned that previous de-escalation deals didn’t last long.

“In order to give people in Idlib peace of mind then, this agreement needs to be built upon by the global powers working together to find a lasting political solution that protects civilians,” Bramwell said. “It is also essential that humanitarian organizations are allowed to reach those who will remain in need throughout Idlib, including in any ‘demilitarized zone.'”

Idlib and surrounding areas were quiet Monday, a continuation of the calm that started less than a week ago amid Russia-Turkey talks.

Associated Press writer Jim Heintz reported this story in Moscow and AP writer Sarah El Deeb reported from Beirut. AP writer Neyran Elden in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

Leaders of Russia, Turkey meet to discuss Syria’s Idlib

September 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The presidents of Russia and Turkey were meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday in a bid to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis around a rebel-held region in Syria.

The province of Idlib in the country’s north-west is the last stronghold of Syrian rebels, and Turkey has been eager to prevent a potential government offensive there. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday was meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin for the second time in just 10 days after Russia and Iran expressed support for the idea of an offensive.

Russia calls Idlib a hotbed of terrorism and says the Syrian government has the right to retake control of it. Turkey has appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution to the ticking bomb. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements to its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

Putin and Erdogan sat down for talks Monday afternoon. Putin told Erdogan in opening remarks carried by Russian news agencies that he and Erdogan will be “looking for solutions where there are none right now,” without mentioning Idlib by name.

Erdogan in his reply expressed hope that the joint statement that the two leaders are expected to make later on Monday will be “a different hope for the whole region.” It was quiet in Idlib and surrounding areas Monday, a continuation of the calm that started less than a week ago amid Russia-Turkey talks.

Idlib and surrounding areas is home to over 3 million Syrians, and an estimated 60,000 rebel fighters.

Putin seeks to defuse downing of Russian plane off Syria

September 19, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli airstrike, killing all 15 people aboard, in what President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday was “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”

The downing of the Il-20 highlighted the dangers posed by the conflicting interests of various powers in the crowded skies over Syria and threatened the close security ties between Russia and Israel. In an effort to maintain that relationship, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly called Putin to express sorrow over the death of the plane’s crew, blamed the plane’s loss squarely on Syria and offered to send Israel’s air force chief to Moscow to share information about the incident.

The Russian military said the plane was hit 35 kilometers (22 miles) offshore late Monday night as it was returning to the Russian air base in Syria. The incident triggered testy exchanges of blame between Israel and Russia.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets were targeting a Syrian military facility involved in providing weapons for Iran’s proxy Hezbollah militia, noting that it warned Russia of the coming raid in line with de-confliction agreements. It said the Syrian army launched the missiles that hit the plane when the Israeli jets were already inside Israeli airspace.

But the Russian Defense Ministry said the Israeli warning came less than a minute before the strike, leaving the Russian aircraft in the line of fire. It pointedly accused the Israeli military of deliberately using the Russian plane as a cover to dodge the Syrian defenses and threatened to retaliate.

“The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian air defense,” said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, to declare that “the Israeli side bears full responsibility” for the plane’s downing and to warn that Russia “reserves the right to retaliate.”

But Putin took a more cautious tone, describing the incident as “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.” At the same time, he said Russia will respond by “taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria.”

“It will be the steps that everyone will notice,” he said without elaboration. Netanyahu, who has maintained warm personal ties with Putin and frequently traveled to Russia for Syria-focused talks, noted the need for Russia and Israel to continue coordinating their action in Syria. At the same time, he emphasized Israel would not tolerate the Iranian military presence in Syria.

Putin told Netanyahu that the Israeli raid violated Syria’s sovereignty and breached the Russian-Israeli de-confliction agreement. He urged the Israeli side “not to allow such situations to happen again,” according to the Kremlin.

Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war, but it has carried out scores of airstrikes against archenemy Iran and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah. Israel has acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times, and Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent clashes between their forces in Syria. Israeli military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.

“Until now, Russia’s armed forces have granted Israeli jets the freedom to strike targets in Syria at will, on the condition that a sufficiently early warning is provided to Russia,” said Charles Lister, a Syria expert with the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “The glue binding this gentleman’s agreement — the Putin-Netanyahu personal relationship — will likely tide this issue over for the time being.”

Moscow has played a delicate diplomatic game of maintaining friendly relations with both Israel and Iran. In July, Moscow said that it struck a deal with Tehran to keep its fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Golan Heights to accommodate Israeli security concerns.

In response to Israeli worries, Russia also has shelved plans to arm Syria with sophisticated air defense assets, such as the long-range S-300 systems that could pose a significant threat to Israeli aircraft.

The downing of the plane could change that. Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official and ex-deputy director-general at Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, told Israel Army Radio that the incident could have “strategic implications” for Israel’s freedom of action in Syria.

“I think it will impose very serious restriction on Israel’s freedom of activity,” she said. Some Russian lawmakers and retired military officers called for a forceful response, saying Russia should provide Syria with the S-300 air defense systems and other sophisticated weapons to prevent any further strikes.

Shoigu, the defense minister, warned his Israeli counterpart that “we won’t leave such action without response.” Russia’s dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 to support Syrian President Bashar Assad after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies against the Islamic State group increased the possibility of dangerous confrontations over Syria.

The downing of a Russian warplane by a Turkish jet in November 2015 put Moscow and Ankara on the verge of military confrontation, but they later negotiated a series of de-escalation agreements for Syria together with Iran.

“The implementation of de-escalation across Syria a year ago introduced a new reality to Syria, in which foreign states are now actively competing to assert their own influence over overlapping territorial space,” Lister said. “Though appropriate measures have been put in place to manage this, the risk of state-on-state conflagrations like we saw overnight has never been higher. With a meaningful political settlement in Syria an increasingly far-fetched objective, this could well be the new reality we live with for years to come.”

The U.S. also expressed sorrow over the Russian deaths, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying it was a reminder of the need to find “permanent, peaceful, and political resolutions to the many overlapping conflicts in the region and the danger of tragic miscalculation in Syria’s crowded theater of operations.”

President Donald Trump, appearing at a White House news conference with Poland’s president, called it a “very sad thing” and said it was “not a good situation.” But Trump also said that the United States has done a “tremendous job” battling the Islamic State group in Syria. He went on to suggest that the nation’s mission there was “very close to being finished.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the shootdown complicates relations between Assad and the Russian government but has “no effect whatever” on the U.S. campaign to defeat Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Before the latest incident, Russia had lost at least seven warplanes and seven combat helicopters in Syria and also had seen dozens of troops killed in ground combat. And there have been other Syria-related deaths of Russians.

A Russian passenger plane carrying tourists from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort crashed over the Sinai in October 2015, killing all 224 people aboard. The Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group said it blew up the plane with a bomb smuggled on board.

And in December 2016, a passenger jet carrying members of the Red Army Choir to a New Year’s concert at a Russian military base in Syria crashed in the Black Sea minutes after takeoff from Sochi in southern Russia, killing all 92 people aboard. The investigation of that crash is continuing, but officials have indicated that pilot error was the likely cause.

Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Josef Federman and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Sarah El Deeb and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Jonathan Lemire in Washington, contributed to this report.

Russia blames Israel for plane shot down by Syrian missile

September 18, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by a Syrian missile over the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 15 people on board, the Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday. It blamed Israel for the crash, saying the plane was caught in the crossfire as four Israeli fighters attacked targets in northwestern Syria.

The Russian military said the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft was hit 35 kilometers (22 miles) offshore late Monday as it was returning to its home base nearby. “The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian defense,” Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, later Tuesday to say that Israel is “fully to blame” for the deaths, the ministry said. The military said Israel did not warn it of its operation over Latakia province until one minute before the strike, which did not give the Russian plane enough time to escape.

The Israeli military said in a statement Tuesday that its jets were already within Israeli airspace when the incident occurred. Israel offered condolences over the death of the Russian troops but said it holds the Syrian government “fully responsible.” It also blamed Iran and Hezbollah for what it described as an “unfortunate incident.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said a recovery operation has already located the plane’s wreckage at sea and has retrieved some bodies and some fragments of the plane. For several years, Israel and Russia have maintained a special hotline to prevent their air forces from clashing in the skies over Syria. Israeli military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.

Russia has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and it has two military bases in the country, including one close to the Mediterranean coast. Russia’s dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015 in support of the Syrian government, after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its coalition partners against the Islamic State group, increased the specter of dangerous confrontations in the skies over Syria.

Turkey’s troops are also on the ground in northern Syria and are patrolling the skies over the region as Ankara seeks to ramp up its influence there and curb the expansion of Syrian Kurdish-controlled territory.

Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war. But it has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes against archenemy Iran and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah. Israel has also acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times. Israel has warned that it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in postwar Syria.

Throughout the fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained continuous contact with Russia. Netanyahu frequently travels to Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syria issue.

The Israeli military said the Russian plane fell victim to the “extensive and inaccurate” firing of Syrian surface-to-air missile systems and that the Israeli jets — which were carrying out a raid against a Syrian government facility in another place — had already left Syrian airspace by that point.

The Israeli military said that hotline with Russia was in operation and that it would share with Russia all the data at its disposal. Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official and ex-deputy director-general at Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, told Israel’s Army Radio station that the shooting down of the plane is problematic for many reasons.

“I think it will impose very serious restriction on Israel’s freedom of activity,” she said. The plane crashed only hours after the leaders of Russia and Turkey reached an agreement to avert an all-out offensive by Syrian government forces to retake Syria’s last remaining rebel stronghold in Idlib.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Tuesday called the deal “a landmark and crucial agreement for Syria’s future” and said the shooting down of the plane will have no impact on it. In Damascus, Syria’s foreign ministry welcomed the agreement, while vowing that it will continue the fight against “terrorism until liberating the last inch of the Syrian territory, whether through military operations or through local reconciliations.”

Iran also welcomed the agreement, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeting: “Diplomacy works.”

Josef Federman and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

“Last” stand: Syria’s rebel Idlib prepares for a “losing” battle

September 17, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — They dug trenches around towns, reinforced caves for cover and put up sand bags around their positions. They issued calls to arms, urging young men to join in the defense of Idlib, the Syrian province where opposition fighters expect to make their last stand against Russian- and Iranian-backed government troops they have fought for years.

This time, it’s “surrender or die.” As the decisive stand for their last stronghold looms, this motley crew of tens of thousands of opposition fighters, including some of the world’s most radical groups, is looking for ways to salvage whatever is possible of an armed rebellion that at one point in the seven-year conflict controlled more than half of the country.

In its last chapter, just as it has throughout the long, bloody war, the Syrian rebellion’s fate lies in foreign hands. This time, the splintered and diverse rebels have only Turkey. “The whole world gave up on us, but Turkey will not,” said Capt. Najib al-Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkish-backed umbrella group known as the National Front for Liberation.

Idlib, with its 3 million residents and more than 60,000 fighters, is Turkey’s cross to bear. Ankara has appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution to the ticking bomb. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements of its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

A wide offensive is only likely after a green light from Russia. But delicate diplomatic moves are at work. Moscow is keen on strengthening ties with Turkey, at a time when Ankara’s relations are at their lowest with the United States. Turkey, by calling on the United States and Europe for support, seems to be playing on that interest to pressure Russia to accept its proposals for a solution on Idlib that avoids an attack.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets for the second time in 10 days with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, this time in Sochi, Russia. “After proving its influence in Syria and the Middle East, Russia wants to pull Turkey away from the West much more than achieve a military victory over the armed Syrian opposition,” Mustafa Ellabbad, an expert on Turkish-Arab relations, wrote in Kuwait’s al-Qabas newspaper.

The province, the size of Lebanon, has been the beating heart of the rebellion for years. In rebel hands since 2015, it is the largest contiguous territory they controlled. It has access to Turkish borders, securing supply lines for weapons, fighters and aid.

For the past two years, Idlib became the shoe-box into which were pushed an estimated 20,000 rebel fighters from around the country, after their losses to government troops and surrender deals negotiated with Russia and Damascus following devastating sieges. Civilians who refused to go back under government rule were also bussed there, nearly doubling the province’s population.

Among the estimated 60,000 opposition fighters in Idlib are at least 10,000 radicals affiliated with the al-Qaida-linked group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee). Thousands of foreign fighters, from China, Europe and the Middle East, are the backbone of the radical groups.

The Turkish reinforcements are going to 12 observation points that Ankara set up around Idlib last year under a deal with Russia and Iran creating a “de-escalation zone.” The deal also effectively stopped an earlier government advance and set Turkey up as Idlib’s protector.

Separately, Turkey has troops stationed in the enclave under its control north and east of Idlib, where it backs Syrian opposition fighters and a civilian administration. It is part of its plan to create a safe area along the border where some of the more than 3 million Syrian refugees it hosts may return.

Ankara initially sent in its troops more than two years ago to push out the Islamic State group and Syrian Kurdish fighters. For Ankara, the increasingly assertive, U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds were an existential threat that encourages the aspirations of its own Kurdish insurgents.

“In the mind of the rebellion, the hope is that from Turkish support they can have … a republic of northern Syria, protected by Turkey like Northern Cyprus,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria watcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

These Turkey-administered areas are likely to be the destination of the displaced and rebels of Idlib in case of an offensive. An Idlib offensive holds multiple threats for Turkey right on its border — a humanitarian crisis, a security nightmare with thousands of gunmen loose and a defeat to its plans for the safe zone. If Syrian forces retake Idlib with no agreement on the fate of the opposition fighters, they could threaten the Turkey-controlled enclave, and Ankara would lose credibility with the fighters and leverage with Damascus on any future deal.

“There is really no way for the Syrian military and Damascus’ allies to launch a military offensive on Idlib that doesn’t have deeply negative, injurious effects on Turkey. There is no real way they can cushion this for Turkey,” said Sam Heller, a Syria expert in the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Turkey’s strategy in the opposition areas has been complicated by the presence of radical fighters. By backing the National Front, it argued it can draw fighters away from the al-Qaida-linked HTS, the dominant power in the province, forcing it to dissolve and creating a new opposition force ready to negotiate with the Syrian government.

The strategy has had limited success. The National Front in recent months gained control of territory in Idlib from HTS, which still controls nearly 70 percent of the province. HTS began to show signs of splits and two weeks ago, Turkey declared it a terrorist group.

But with the onset of a military offensive, HTS has set up joint operation rooms with different National Front factions. Making a rare video appearance in late August, HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani — wearing an olive-green military uniform — vowed to fight Assad’s forces and said Turkish observation points were no protection.

The HTS spokesman in Idlib said now was not the time to talk about dissolving into Turkish-backed rebel groups. He underlined that an arrangement must eventually be made for the foreign fighters in the group.

“Right now, no sound is louder than that of the battle,” Imad Eddin Mujahed said. “We have many military surprises; enough to upset the balance and ward off aggressors.” In rallies around Idlib the last two weeks, protesters took to the streets to deny that the province is a hotbed of extremists. Thousands raised only the flag of the Syrian revolution, a reminder that there was once a popular uprising against Assad, and Idlib is now its last bastion.

Some raised banners reading: “The rebels are our hope and the Turks are our brothers.” Syrian forces and Iranian-backed militias are likely to avoid a clash with the Turkish troops. But the stance of the Syrian government and Iran is clear-cut: they vow to recapture all Syrian territory and are loath to see an expansion of Turkish and American influence. They argue the West fueled jihadis with past support of the opposition and now must let Syria get rid of them.

“Assad and Russia gave the choice to the international community: first we kill everybody. Second thing, (they said) if you want to protect (Idlib) then take those people you think are nice … It is cynical but puts the international community before its contradictions,” said Balanche.

Al-Mustafa, the National Front spokesman, said the rebels are prepared for a battle he called “existential.” But, he added, “our cause will not end if we lose this battle.”

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