Turkey hits back at Moscow over Idlib claims

Turkey, Russia have been embroiled in a war of words as the Syrian regime backed by Moscow intensifies assaults. (AP pic)

ANKARA: Turkey’s vice-president on Saturday hit back at Russian accusations of failing to honour a 2018 deal by insisting it carried out its responsibilities in Syria’s Idlib.

“Observation posts were set up and the regime had to stay outside of this area. Russia and Iran were to ensure the regime stayed outside, Turkey had responsibilities too, Turkey fulfilled these,” Vice-President Fuat Oktay told NTV broadcaster.

Turkey has 12 observation posts in the northwestern province of Idlib after the 2018 agreement between Russia and Turkey in Sochi to prevent a Damascus-led offensive.

Up to four of Turkey’s posts are in Syrian regime-controlled territory, Turkish officials say.

Turkey and Russia have been embroiled in a war of words over Idlib as the Syrian regime backed by Moscow has intensified an assault, killing hundreds of civilians.

The Russian defence ministry said earlier this week Turkey did not separate “fighters from the moderate opposition from terrorists.”

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar then said on Thursday force would be used against anyone who did not adhere to the ceasefire, including “radicals”.

Idlib is held by an array of rebels dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, which is led by members of the country’s former Al-Qaeda franchise.

The tensions began after 14 Turks were killed this month by regime shelling in Idlib.

Despite being on opposing sides, rebel supporter Turkey and Moscow ally Russia have worked closely on Syria.

Turkey says it wants to stop the Damascus regime’s “aggression” in a bid to stop the deaths of civilians and to prevent a wave of refugees fleeing to Turkey.

Turkey is already home to more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. “Turkey cannot withstand another migration wave,” Oktay said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the regime to withdraw from Turkish-manned posts by the end of February, otherwise Ankara will “take matters into its own hands.”

In recent days, Turkey has sent multiple military reinforcements to Idlib, and Hurriyet daily on Saturday reported that a 60-vehicle convoy carrying commandos and armoured carriers was sent to beef up the Turkish posts.