Turkey has sent more troops to north-western Syria as it prepares for a critical meeting with the leaders of Russia and Iran next week, signalling its determination to continue blocking an assault on one of the Syrian war’s last front lines.
The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is concerned an attempt by Russian-backed Syrian forces to move on the rebel bastion of Idlib would send more refugees streaming towards the Turkish frontier.
Attacks in early July, bolstered by artillery and mortar fire from government-held areas, resulted in the deaths of 54 civilians, including 11 children and 10 women, and wounded more than 148 people.
Mr Erdogan is expected to raise the issue of Idlib escalation when he meets Vladimir Putin and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi on September 29, say two Turkish officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Iran is also a supporter of the Syrian regime.
Thousands of additional soldiers would help deter any attempted advances by Syrian ground forces on Idlib and control roads leading to the Turkish border, the officials said.
With Turkish troops acting as a deterrent, the most Syrian forces can do is recover territory step by step, Moscow-based Middle East expert Elena Suponina said.
Combatant positions around Idlib have remained mostly static since March 2020, when Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin struck a truce agreement ending fierce fighting between Turkish and Syrian forces.
Last week, Mr Putin condemned the presence of foreign troops in Syria as the Russian President held unannounced talks in Moscow with his counterpart Bashar Al Assad.
Growing refugee crisis
An increase in attacks by Russian warplanes and Syrian forces on the territory has attracted the attention of Turkish officials already facing growing domestic criticism over the cost of housing the world’s biggest refugee populations.
“We can’t tolerate a new wave of refugees,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on a visit to the Syrian border on September 11, a day after militants killed three Turkish soldiers in Idlib. “We must do our best to prevent migration. The basis of this lies in making the region safe and stable. We are striving for that.”
At the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, Mr Erdogan addressed the issue of displaced people.
“As a country that saved human dignity in the Syrian crisis, we have neither the means nor the patience to meet new immigration waves,” he said.
Under a 2016 agreement, the EU paid Turkey billions of dollars to take in Syrians fleeing the war and looking to settle in Europe.
Turkey now hosts about 4 million Syrians. Opposition to their presence grew as the economy faltered during the pandemic, and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan threatened a new influx.
In related news, Syria's Defence Minister Ali Ayyoub and the Jordanian Army's chief of staff Lt Gen Yousef Hunaiti came face-to-face in a rare meeting between the heads of the countries' militaries on Sunday.
Russia had previously brokered a ceasefire in Deraa between the government of Mr Al Assad and a local Syrian rebel group but the truce broke down in July.
Within a month of fighting more than 40,000 people fled the area, the UN Office for the co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
Russia's military intervention in 2015 helped turn the tide of the war in the regime's favour. Moscow maintains military bases in the country.