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TURKEY is sending reinforcements into Syria’s Idlib governorate before an expected offensive by the Syrian army aimed at retaking the rebel-controlled province.
A military convoy was reported crossing the border this morning, a day after Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said he was working with Russia and Iran to “stop a humanitarian tragedy” if Damascus’s forces enter the area.
Turkey established 12 observation posts around Idlib last year, but the province itself is controlled by two rival jihadist alliances, the al-Qaida offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the National Liberation Front (NLF), a merger announced last month between Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki, the group that received notoriety in 2016 after its fighters released a video in which they beheaded a 12-year-old boy they accused of being a spy.
As the Syrian army has retaken rebel-held territory elsewhere, many insurgents have been given safe passage to Idlib in return for surrendering, meaning the area is occupied by thousands of militants.
While the NLF was supposedly formed to resist Syrian attempts to liberate the area, it and HTS have clashed repeatedly. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports hundreds of targeted killings since April, including dozens of civilians, as the rivals take aim at each other with car bombs and assassinations.
Residents also report widespread kidnappings for ransom, including of medical personnel, while HTS has responded to reports of Syrian advances by launching purges of individuals accused variously of spying for Damascus, being sleeper agents of Isis or colluding with various smaller rebel organisations.
Recent weeks have seen escalating Syrian and reportedly Russian bombing of rebel positions in the area while thousands of troops are massing on its borders. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the reconquest of Idlib is the government’s next priority, since it is the last major bastion of jihadist power in the country.
The United States said yesterday that it would hold Russia responsible if a Syrian bid to retake Idlib has “deadly consequences” and that it was querying the large number of Russian warships gathering along the Syrian coast.
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