A small army reconnaissance team from Turkey has reportedly crossed the border into Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib ahead of a planned deployment of the Ankara-backed so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA)’s forces in the largely militant-held region.
A top FSA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, announced the news on Sunday, a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a major military operation conducted by the armed opposition group and supported by the Turkish army had just begun to liberate the militant-held areas of Idlib from the Takfiri Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) terrorist outfit.
The HTS terrorist group is spearheaded by an al-Qaeda affiliate known as the Nusra Front, which changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham last year, and has already captured much of Idlib while holding swathes of land in Syria’s northern regions.
Meanwhile, reports said that the Turkish army, using howitzers fixed on the border, shelled positions held by the HTS earlier in the day to pave the way for the FSA forces to advance into the volatile province. According to a member of the FSA group, the Turkish shelling came after the HTS militants fired a missile across the border.
The so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Turkish shells fell in the vicinity of a camp designated for displaced people along the border, spreading panic but causing no casualties.
The new operation in Idlib will pave the way for establishing a planned “de-escalation” zone in the province, where Erdogan has said Turkey would deploy troops, though the HTS terrorists have pledged to keep fighting.
Erdogan on Sunday said that Turkey was implementing a deal agreed with Russia and Iran to curb violence in Idlib in cooperation with the FSA, adding, “Our efforts in Idlib are going on in cooperation with the Free Syria Army without problems at the moment.”
Back in May, the fourth round of the intra-Syrian talks, held in Kazakhstan's capital Astana, resulted in an agreement on creating four de-escalation zones across Syria, with Russia, Iran, and Turkey serving as guarantor states.
Three of the safe zones have been created to date in Syria’s central province of Homs, in the Eastern Ghouta area of the southern province of Rif Dimashq, and in a southwestern militant-controlled stretch along the border with Jordan. They have sharply reduced fighting in the conflict zones.
The newly launched operation is regarded as a strong push for establishing the fourth zone to be set up in Idlib. Last month, Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara agreed on the details of the safe zone in the volatile province, which borders Turkey.
The Turkish president said on Saturday that the major offensive was a follow-up to the Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria, which was launched in August last year without permission of Damascus. It aimed to clear Turkey’s southern border of Daesh Takfiri terrorist group.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Sunday said that Ankara was cooperating with Moscow in the ongoing offensive in the province, adding, “We will provide security in Idlib.”
Idlib province has been the destination of many militant groups who were relocated under deals with Damascus last year. Terrorist alliances, however, are still operating in the province, controlling a considerable part of its territory.
Last month, the Russian military announced that the Syrian government had managed to liberate 85 percent of the country from the grips of terrorist groups, some two years after Moscow began a counter-terrorism campaign in Syria at the official request of Damascus.