ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey plans to push Syrian government forces away from its military observation posts in northwest Syria’s Idlib region this week, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday, despite advances by Damascus’s Russian-backed military.
Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced in the last three months by fighting between Turkish-backed rebels and Syrian forces trying to recapture the last major insurgent-held region in Syria after nine years of war.
Ankara has sent thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment into the region, in Syria’s northwest corner bordering Turkey, to support the rebels and Erdogan has vowed to push back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
“We are planning to liberate our observation posts from the surrounding (Syrian government forces) by the end of this month, one way or another,” Erdogan told his party’s lawmakers in a speech.
But Assad’s forces made fresh gains in southern Idlib province where they took a number of villages on Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, and a military news outlet run by Assad’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
The pro-government forces’ immediate objective is to reach the town of Kafar Aweed, the capture of which would force rebels to withdraw from a wider tract of territory including their last remaining foothold in Hama province, Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said.
The Syrian army said it had seized numerous villages and towns in the last few days in the south of Idlib province, describing the captured territory as an important crossroads between rebel-held territories.
Early on Thursday, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said two of its soldiers were killed and two others wounded in an air strike on Turkish forces in Idlib. Sixteen other Turkish soldiers have been killed in the region this month.
The ministry said the Turkish military opened fire on Syrian government targets in response. It said that according to various sources in the region 114 members of the Syrian forces were “neutralized”.
Erdogan first demanded on Feb. 5 that Assad’s forces pull back behind a line of Turkish observation posts by end-February, or Turkey would drive them back.
Turkey set up 12 observation posts up around a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, but several now find themselves behind Syrian government front lines.
Syrian insurgents backed by the Turkish military seized the town of Nairab in Idlib this week, according to rebel and Turkish sources, the first area to be taken back from advancing Syrian government forces.
Ankara is increasingly concerned about the build-up of displaced people south of its frontier with Syria. Turkey, which has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot handle another influx and has closed the border.
Syrian government forces are advancing closer to the camps for uprooted people near the Turkish border, where the migrants fear being engulfed in the fighting.
Turkish and Russian officials began a third round of talks in Ankara on Wednesday aimed at reducing tensions in the region. Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency said the talks would continue on Thursday.
Two previous rounds in Ankara and Moscow have failed to yield any tangible progress.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry expected positive results, RIA news agency cited Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying, but a Turkish official was not optimistic.
“At the moment, solely military diplomacy is being carried out and it is not possible to solve the problem on the ground like this,” the Turkish official told Reuters.
He said clear results were unlikely until a planned Turkey-Russia-Iran summit on March 6. A summit a day earlier between Russia, Turkey, France and Germany had been proposed, but Moscow has not sounded receptive to the idea.
Erdogan said in Wednesday’s speech that he hoped the issue of using the air space over Idlib will be resolved soon.
Russia controls the region’s air space and has been bombing Turkish-supported rebels on a daily basis in support of the offensive by Syrian government forces.
Reporting by Nevzat Devranoglu and Tom Perry; Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Ece Toksabay and Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Maxim Rodionov in Moscow; Writing by Daren Butler and Dominic Evans; editing by Mark Heinrich, Kirsten Donovan and Grant McCool