Turkey is prepared to conduct a new military offensive in northern Syria unless Kurdish rebels are not cleared away from areas along the Turkish border with Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Wednesday while addressing legislators in parliament.

“If all of the terrorists aren’t removed… as it has been promised to us, I repeat once again that we have a legitimate reason to intervene at any moment. We feel the need to,” Erdogan said in reference to the Kurdish fighters.

Erdogan made his remarks just days after two Kurdish fighters infiltrated Turkey from the Syrian border. One of the militants was killed in a shootout with police; the other detonated a suicide bomb following a police chase in the border town of Hatay.

Erdogan made it clear that Turkey was determined to protect its border region. He also added that a recent Russian airstrike that had targeted a military training camp of the Failaq al-Sham, one of the largest Turkish-backed armed militias in the area, was an indication that Moscow was not looking for lasting peace in the region.

The Russian airstrike had taken place in the Jabal al-Dweila near Idlib. At least 35 had died and 50 more were wounded in the strike. The training camp was preparing to graduate a new class of fighters when it was struck. 

The airstrike was considered by many Middle East analysts as a message from Moscow to Ankara. President Putin is upset that the Turks had upped the ante in Nagorno-Karabakh by transporting an influx of Syrian mercenaries to fight against Armenian forces.

Relations between Russia and Turkey are at a very low point despite the recent sale of the S-400 Air Defense System by Moscow to Ankara. Both countries are vying for increased presence and influence in the region mostly by using proxy forces. They are supporting opposite sides in Syria, Libya, and in the recent blowup between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the Caucasus. Russia considers the Caucasus its backyard.  

Turkish military attacks Syrian troops in Idlib province

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The Turks have sent thousands of Syrian mercenaries to fight on behalf of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. GNA is fighting against the Russian-backed forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Khalifa Haftar.

In Syria, the Russians have been long-time backers of the regime of President Bashar Assad while the Turkish government is supporting several opposition groups. The National Liberation Front alliance is the largest of the Turkish-backed armed groups. It includes 11 Free Syrian Army factions all supported by Ankara.

The National Liberation Front has excluded Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra. HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. It has moved away from al-Qaeda’s goals of establishing a global caliphate. Instead, HTS is locally focused. Its primary objective is the establishment of Islamic rule in Syria by “toppling the criminal [Assad] regime and expelling the Iranian militias.” HTS currently controls large swaths of northwestern Syria. It has about 12,000-15,000 fighters.

HTS’s attempts to take over Idlib had given the Turks the pretext to intervene.

Since 2016, the Turkish military has conducted three major incursions into northeast Syria. The goal is to expel Kurdish and ISIS fighters from the border area. A year ago, the Turks conducted an operation to drive Kurdish rebels from the border area and create a “safe zone” where they hoped to resettle refugees. 

Turkey is currently home to nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees. While at first, the Turkish population happily accepted them, now the majority of Turks want the Syrians to return to their homeland. The economic troubles that Turkey is facing are contributing to this sentiment.

Due to the combined Russian-Syrian offensive in Idlib, nearly a million more Syrians have been displaced. The Turks balked at allowing them into Turkey and instead set up makeshift camps for them. The conditions in the camps are poor. 

The Russians and Turks had agreed to a ceasefire in Idlib and the conducting of joint patrols along the M4 highway but the agreement appears to be breaking down.

Lead image: Reuters