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Turkey backs Syrian rebels in Idlib

ReutersANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) — Syrian rebel fighters are launching a major military operation backed by Turkish forces into a northwestern area of Syria largely controlled by jihadists, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday.

Rebels said they were preparing to start the operation soon in Idlib Province and surrounding areas, which represent Syria’s most populous rebel-held area, and residents reported Turkish authorities removing sections of a border wall.

The incursion is being carried out after Iran and Russia, which back President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which supports the rebels, agreed last month to reduce fighting between insurgents and the government in the northwest.

It seems aimed at curbing the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, Syria’s strongest jihadist group apart from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and at securing Turkey’s frontier.

“There’s a serious operation in Syria’s Idlib today, and it will continue,” Erdogan said in a speech to his AK Party, adding that Turkey would not allow a “terror corridor” on its border with Syria.

“For now the Free Syrian Army is carrying out the operation there,” Erdogan said. “Russia is supporting the operation from the air, and our armed forces from inside Turkey’s borders,” he added.

Late on Saturday, Turkey deployed tanks and military vehicles on the its Syrian border, building up military presence, a Reuters witness said.

Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in the Liwa al-Mutasem Syrian insurgent group taking part in the operation, said Russia would not be backing the rebels in the campaign.

“As for the Russians, they will not have a role in the areas of our control at all. The role of the Russians is limited to areas under regime control,” he said.

Ankara, Moscow and Tehran announced a deal last month to establish and patrol a “de-escalation” zone in the Idlib region, where Erdogan has said Turkey will deploy troops.

Turkey’s foreign minister said late on Saturday that Turkey aimed to prevent clashes in Idlib.

“Russian and Iranian observers will be in some regions here, and we will have our observers inside Idlib. Of course they will be in safe places so there will be no risks,” Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.

Tahrir al-Sham is spearheaded by the former Nusra Front, which was Al-Qaida’s Syrian branch until last year, when it changed its name and broke formal allegiance to the global movement founded by Osama bin Laden.

It has been a formidable military force since early in the war, when it transitioned from bomb attacks in cities to guerrilla conflict with the Syrian army, fighting alongside many other factions. Since early this year, it has battled other rebel groups in Idlib and other parts of Syria, while the government has mostly focused on the war against Islamic State in the east.

In July, Tahrir al-Sham seized land around the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey, bringing much of the frontier area inside Syria under its control.

Witnesses: Vehicles enter Idlib

BEIRUT (Reuters) — Turkish military vehicles entered Syria’s Idlib Province on Sunday under escort from the Tahrir al-Sham jihadist alliance, a resident of the Syria-Turkey border area and a local rebel said.

They both said they saw several vehicles carrying Turkish forces entering Idlib at the Atmah crossing before Tahrir al-Sham fighters escorted them along a road.

On Sunday, a war monitor reported clashes between Turkish forces and the jihadists. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the clashes took place near the village of Kafr Lusin in Idlib.Speech

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