ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s defense minister said Tuesday as many as four observation posts and two military positions are now in Syrian government-controlled territory as Syrian forces continue their advance into the last rebel stronghold, an offensive that has escalated tensions between Syria and Turkey.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Turkey would not vacate any of its 12 observation posts in Idlib and warned that Turkish soldiers were under orders to retaliate forcefully to Syrian attacks on the military posts.
“In the event of any action against them, they have been given instructions to retaliate even more powerfully,” Akar said. “In the event anything happens, there will be retaliation. We expect the regime to not take any action under any circumstances.”
“We have said over and over that we would not pull back our personnel, soldiers from there. They will continue their mission,” he said.
Turkey has recently sent additional troops and tanks to bolster its military presence in northwestern Syria, where President Bashar Assad’s forces have been advancing in a devastating, Russian-backed offensive that has sparked a massive exodus of people.
Syria’s Idlib region near the border with Turkey and parts of nearby Aleppo are the last rebel-held bastion in the war-ravaged country.
The push by Assad’s forces into towns and villages in the province over the past months has angered Turkey, which backs the rebels, and brought the two countries’ troops into a rare, direct confrontation. Two separate clashes between Syrian and Turkish troops have killed 13 on each side, including five Turkish soldiers who were killed in Syrian shelling on Monday.
Akar spoke as the Syrian government forces came closer to capturing the last rebel-held part of a strategic highway linking southern and northern Syria, which would bring the road under Assad’s full control for the first time since 2012.
With backing from Russia, Syrian troops have been on the offensive for weeks in Idlib and parts of Aleppo, triggering a humanitarian crisis with some 700,000 people fleeing their homes and surging north toward the Turkish border.
Akar said Turkey was pressing Russia to use its influence on Syria’s government to ensure that Syrian forces pull back to a previously agreed cease-fire line, and to vacate a strategic highway.
“We have asked for regime elements to immediately withdraw from the M5 route and we will continue to ask (for that),” Akar said.
“We want (them) to stop these regime attacks immediately, to (ensure) the ceasefire is complied with and in turn, for the people to return to their homes, their land,” the minister said.
The minister insisted Turkey’s aim in Idlib is to shore up a cease-fire agreement for the region that was negotiated in 2018 and prevent a refugee flow. The cease-fire, which has since collapsed, was brokered by Russia, which backs Assad, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups in the area.
Akar spoke hours before he was due to depart Ankara for a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels.
Asked what Turkey’s expectations were from the meeting, Akar called for “concrete” moves by allies to stop Syrian government aggression in Idlib, which he said would trigger a new refugee wave that would threaten Europe and beyond. He also warned that the humanitarian situation in Idlib would lead to increased radicalization.
“NATO countries, NATO, Europe and the world must look at this issue more closely and must provide serious, concrete support,” Akar said.
“People who lose their homes and households try to do things in desperation and this strengthens the hands of the radicals. And in one way or another paves the way to radicalization,” he said.