Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told the country’s NTV broadcaster on Saturday that Ankara “has fulfilled its responsibilities” in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, in sync with its agreement on de-escalation zones with Moscow and Tehran.
“Some of our [military] observation posts have now fallen into areas controlled by the [Syrian] regime”, Oktay added, in an apparent reference to the posts that Turkey established in the province under the trilateral deal.
He also warned that Ankara will use military power to drive the Syrian Army out of Idlib unless it withdraws from the province by the end of February.
“The [Bashar Assad] regime must know this: if attacks on our military continue, Turkey will know no bounds [in its retaliation]. This message was clearly conveyed to Russia”, Oktay said
He spoke after the Russian Defence Ministry blamed the escalation of the situation in Idlib on Turkey’s failure to live up to its obligations on Syria.
“The real reason of the crisis in Idlib de-escalation zone is, unfortunately, the failure of our Turkish colleagues to adhere to their commitments on separating moderate opposition fighters from terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra* and Hurras ad-Din [linked to al-Qaeda*], the Ministry said.
It pointed to “provocations in Idlib de-escalation zone by the terrorist groups that use 'live shield' against the Syrian government forces”.
The Ministry also said that the situation in Idlib is “exacerbated by the arrival of weapons and ammunition in the de-escalation zone via the Syrian-Turkish border, as well as the arrival of Turkish armoured vehicles and troops” in the area.
The statement came as Syrian government forces increased their efforts to expel militants from Idlib, the only remaining militant stronghold in Syria. At the same time, the Turkish Defence Ministry reported that the country's military has been conducting retaliatory attacks on Syrian government forces.
Earlier this week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on the situation in Idlib by emphasising that Damascus had every right to engage in anti-terrorist operations on its own territory.
“This is a matter of fulfilling the Sochi accords [on Idlib de-escalation zone] and the obligations that the parties assumed in accordance with this document. Also, perhaps first and foremost, we're talking about the fight against terrorism that the Syrian Armed Forces are waging on the territory of their country”, Peskov pointed out.
Tensions in Northern Syria on Increase
He made the remarks amid escalating tensions in northern Syria which started to worsen earlier this month, when the shelling, which Ankara argued was conducted by Syrian forces on one of Turkey's observation posts in Idlib, claimed the lives of at least eight Turkish nationals. The Syrian government hasn't commented on the claims yet.
Turkish troops responded with an air strike which they claimed killed at least 76 Syrian servicemen.
Idlib remains one of four de-escalation zones created in Syria through the joint efforts of Russia, Iran and Turkey in 2017. The region is believed to contain tens of thousands of terrorist militants, as well as hundreds of thousands of civilians. Late last year, the Syrian Army began an operation in the area after militants’ repeated attacks on Syrian Army positions claimed the lives of dozens of servicemen.
* Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, terrorist groups banned in Russia and some other countries