Erdogan said Turkey was determined to push the Syrian troops beyond Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of this month and that Ankara would not allow insurgents in Idlib to give them an excuse to attack.
An extensive campaign of air strikes and artillery shelling was underway along the M4 highway, which links Latakia on the Mediterranean coast to the contested crossroads town of Saraqeb south of Idlib city, a humanitarian source said on Wednesday.
The offensive has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, in the biggest single wave of displacement of the conflict, leaving them desperate for shelter amid atrocious weather conditions.
Many villages along the M5 highway, running south from the city of Aleppo, were now deserted, the source said.
Turkey, which is allied with some rebel groups opposed to Assad, counter-attacked on Tuesday after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian shelling in Idlib in the last 10 days.
“If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,”
Erdogan said, referring to a 2018 ceasefire accord.
“We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating,” he told members of his AK Party in Ankara.
Turkey has set up 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to establish what they called a de-escalation zone.
This month Ankara – which has the second-largest army in NATO – has poured some 5,000 troops and convoys of military vehicles across the border into Idlib, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its positions.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow remained committed to its deal with Ankara on Syria but that Russia considered militant attacks in Idlib unacceptable.
“The Turkish side undertook to ensure that terrorist groups in Idlib were neutralised,” he told reporters. “These groups are carrying out strikes from Idlib on Syrian forces and also taking aggressive action against our military facilities.”
The Turkish military casualties have sparked some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and made millions refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey.
Ankara says it cannot handle another wave of refugees.
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