Troops and tanks amassing along the border with Syria in anticipation of a major offensive and ensuing refugee crisis.
Antakya, Turkey – Turkey continued to deploy troops and heavy weaponry to its southwestern border with Syria in anticipation of a major offensive by the Syrian government and its allies on opposition-held territory.
On Sept. 10 and 11, deputy foreign ministers from the Astana trio (Russia, Iran and Turkey) met in Geneva to consult with the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The discussions helped achieve a breakthrough on the issue of Syrian Constitutional Committee — one of the most critical items on the agenda of political resolution and peacemaking in Syria. The diplomats managed to agree upon the lists of committee members from the government and the opposition and to design a plan to create a third list composed of representatives of Syrian civil society. The lists are supposed to include 150 people altogether.Alexander Lavrentiev, Putin’s special envoy for Syria who led the Russian delegation at the consultations, said the government and opposition lists will have to be approved by all sides after the civil society list is discussed further. Lavrentiev said this still was a “fragile mechanism” and one cannot “upset the balance,” meaning attempts to turn the civil society list into an extension of the government would be unacceptable.
A Turkish military convoy arrived at a Turkish outpost near the town of Morek, in Syrias northern Hama province, early on Thursday.
The format of the committee’s future work was also outlined during the talks in Geneva. A council of 45 members of the committee will be created specifically to design a new Syrian constitution or amend the existing one. Although the procedure for the formation of the council is not still fully clear, it is known that the body will be selected following the same principles as the committee itself, including having an equal number of representatives of the regime, opposition and civil society. This could be a compromise involving the numbers of people selected to make important decisions: De Mistura had sought to cut the number of committee members from 150 to 40-50 people. It is also unclear who will become the committee’s chairperson. Russia insists on a government official for this position, while Turkey and the opposition rebels disagree.
Al Jazeera also observed the arrival of a military plane that unloaded dozens of Turkish soldiers at the civilian airport in Hatay province, about 50km from the Turkish-Syrian border. It was not immediately clear whether the troops were heading across the border.
It is not impossible, by the way, that the parties might have reached an agreement of some kind before the Geneva encounter, during bilateral Russian-Turkish consultations on Idlib, and that the talks in Geneva merely reflect the earlier agreements. For instance, in the future, Ankara is likely to point out that positive changes in the peace process were made possible only because the de-escalation zone in northwestern Syria was kept intact. In return Ankara may prove helpful in re-energizing various “frozen” projects within the peacemaking process that could not be carried out if the fighting ignited. This could be especially valuable for Moscow if such initiatives concerned those initiated and designed by Russia.
Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and is fearful of another major influx if Syrian forces – backed by Russian airpower and allied militias – attack the last remaining stronghold of opposition fighters in Idlib province.
According to Metin Gurcan, a Turkish security expert, the border reinforcement was a defensive measure.
“If you look at the types of those weapons systems, I would say they are all for defensive purposes. So I dont think Turkey has offensive intention and capability to militarily intervene in the Idlib conundrum,” he told Al Jazeera.
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“This is sort of the preventive, defensive military buildup to manage the anticipated refugee flow because of this push of Russia-backed Syrian forces from the south.”
Nearly 40,000 people have already fled Idlib after Syrian-Russian air attacks intensified over the last two weeks. The UN estimates, in a worst-case scenario, about 900,000 civilians could flee Idlib if a full-scale ground offensive begins.
Any operation in Idlib to lead to disaster
This big bird just landed in Hatay and unloaded a few dozen soldiers. #Idlib pic.twitter.com/2PxQmWyXmL
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Turkish officials have repeatedly warned Russia and the Syrian government against attacking Idlib, saying it would lead to another massive wave of refugees heading towards Turkey.
Over the past week, Turkey has deployed reinforcements and expanded defensive structures at about a dozen observation points across opposition-held territories in Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama provinces.
The outposts were established after a de-escalation agreement was reached between Turkey, Russia, and Iran in July 2017.
Areas in Deraa and Homs provinces and the suburb of Eastern Ghouta were also part of the de-escalation deal, but over the past few months, they have been captured by Syrian government forces backed by the Russian air force and pro-Iranian militias.
“The alliance has grown deeper since senior leaders of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF], spearheaded by the YPG, held formal talks with the Syrian regime to carve out a place for themselves in the new Syria,” Cavusoglu added.
Erdoğan to meet Putin in Russia to discuss the situation in Syrias Idlib
On September 7, a ceasefire proposed by Turkey was rejected by Russia and Iran during a summit among the three countries in Tehran.
A confrontation between Turkish forces and those backing the Syrian government are “highly unlikely” if the offensive on Idlib goes forward, said Gurkan.
In recent weeks, regime forces have been massing to the south and southwest of the province, and in recent days launched an intense aerial bombing campaign targeting rebel positions, three medical centres and rescue workers said.
Russia continues to control Syrias airspace, he noted, and Turkey is unlikely to initiate any military action there without Russian approval.
Turkey on Thursday called for Washington "to assess who its real allies in the region are" as the Assad regime in Syria is reported to be preparing an attack on the country's northwestern Idlib province.
“I dont expect a large-scale ground offensive [by Syrian forces]. It is going to a gradual, incremental siege warfare that could last maybe nine to 10 months,” said Gurkan.
During a meeting with foreign ambassadors in Ankara on Wednesday, Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar warned that any military operation in Idlib would drag a region rife with problems to disaster.
He added Turkey was unlikely to withdraw its observation points manned by its troops if heavy fighting begins.
“These are Russia-endorsed observation posts, the prime objective of which is to prevent the expansion of pro-Iranian Shia militias from Aleppo to Idlib,” he said.
"Having YPG forces operating from Syria, just miles from the border of Turkey, is untenable. It’s time for Washington to assess who its real allies in the region are."
According to Gurkan, Russia also wants to limit Iranian influence in Syria and prevent it from spreading into Idlib province.
Located near the Turkish border, Idlib province is home to more than 3 million Syrians, many of whom fled from other cities following attacks by regime forces.
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On the other hand Abdurrahman Rafi, a pro-Assad journalist who works in the region, wrote that the morale of troops on the frontlines is low, many militias and soldiers are seeking an opportunity to escape and most of the troops on the frontlines are not ready for battle. He reported that most of the military bases are filled with militias who want to loot the fronts after air and land operations, rather than fighting.
This frame grab from video provided by Central Station for Turkish Intervention, an activist-operated media group monitoring Turkish activities in Syria, that is consistent with independent AP reporting, shows a Turkish military convoy heading to some of the 12 Turkish observations points that ring Idlib, Syria, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Turkey sent in military reinforcements Thursday to beef up its positions inside Syrias last rebel bastion Idlib, activists reported, even as the Turkish defense minister said Ankara is still trying with Russia and Iran to prevent a humanitarian tragedy in the case of a threatened Syrian government offensive. (Central Station for Turkish Intervention, via AP)
The Kremlin says that President Vladimir Putin could meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan next week.
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Putins spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that preparations are under way for Putins meeting with Erdogan in Sochi on Monday. He wouldnt elaborate on the meetings agenda, but the two leaders are likely to discuss the tensions in Syrias northwestern province of Idlib.
Any Military Operation Would be Disastrous for Idlib – Turkish Defense Minister
The Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, is preparing for a military offensive to reclaim control over Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold on the border with Turkey. Turkey strongly warned against the military action, saying it would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe.
Russia has urged Turkey to persuade rebels in Idlib to sever ties with al-Qaida linked rebels in the area.
Abu Tawfik, a colonel on the Syrian regimes Homs front, confessed in a WhatsApp conversation with a lieutenant from the same front that they would fail in a ground operation. He also recommended to use those who came from Daraa and Ghouta as pawns by positioning them on the frontlines.
Turkeys military and defense chiefs have visited areas bordering Syria where the country has reinforced troops amid fears of a looming Syrian government offensive on Syrias last rebel-held province of Idlib.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief of Military Staff Yasar Guler on Friday inspected troops in the border provinces of Hatay and Gaziantep.
In parallel to Turkeys diplomacy regarding the Idlib issue and the international communitys support of these efforts, bringing the Reyhanlı attack plotter from the Syrian port city of Latakia to Turkey put Damascus into a difficult situation.
Kurdish YPG militia may aid Syrian government in Idlib operation – Turkish foreign minister
Turkey has been reinforcing the border in recent weeks. Syrian activists meanwhile said new military reinforcements had arrived to beef up Turkish observation points inside Idlib.
The Latest: Turkey reinforces security posts in north Syria
The state-run Anadolu Agency reported late Thursday that commando units as well as howitzers, tanks, armored personnel carriers and heavy work machines were sent to the town of Reyhanli, in Hatay province as reinforcements
Turkeys foreign minister says his country is still working for a peaceful solution for Syrias rebel-held province of Idlib, adding that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would hold talks with Russias Vladimir Putin on Monday.
Activists: Turkey beefing up its troops in Syrias Idlib
Speaking during a visit to Pakistan on Friday, Mevlut Cavusoglu said: "We will continue our efforts with Iran and with Russia. … We will continue our efforts on international platforms as well." His comments were broadcast live on Turkish television.
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At a meeting in Tehran last week, the leaders of Russia and Iran backed military operations in Idlib despite pleas from Erdogan for a cease-fire.
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Turkey fears a humanitarian crisis in Idlib, which straddles Turkeys borders and is home to more than 3 million people.