BEIRUT (AP) — Turkish troops in northwestern Syria have been evacuating one of their largest military bases in the area, which was surrounded by Syrian government troops for months, activists said Tuesday.
There was no immediate comment from Turkish officials. Activists and opposition media platforms reported the military evacuation, posting footage and photos of Turkish trucks and equipment driving north of Morek.
Turkish TV station Haberturk quoted unnamed officials saying that Turkey is moving the base to an area farther north in the northwestern province of Idlib still controlled by Syrian opposition forces backed by Ankara. There was no immediate government confirmation of that report.
Youssef Hamoud, a spokesman for the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition group, confirmed that the troops are redeploying in the north, adding that he was not aware of evacuations of other bases.
It was not immediately clear whether the withdrawal is part of a deal to reposition Turkish observation points inside the opposition-held enclave or is aimed at reducing Turkey’s military presence in the area. As part of an earlier cease-fire deal, Turkey deployed troops to man 12 observation points in the northwest to separate government forces and Syrian opposition fighters and monitor the truce negotiated with Russia.
But the cease-fire failed to curtail government advances, including the one that encircled the Turkish base in Morek late last year.
The shrinking enclave at the edge of northwestern Syria, along the border with Turkey, is the last area controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced within the enclave during repeated military operations. Many of the residents are already displaced from other parts of Syria and sought refuge from government troops there.
The Step News Agency, an opposition media collective, said two Turkish conveys were spotted driving toward the M4 highway, an area where the Syrian opposition is in control. The agency first reported movement in the Turkish base in Morek on Sunday. It said Turkey and Russia had negotiated evacuating Turkish posts encircled during the last government offensive. There are believed to be three other posts encircled by Syrian government troops.
Shaam News Network, another opposition media site, said the evacuation will take a few days to complete.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the evacuation began late Monday, and is likely to be followed by the evacuation of other bases.
The evacuation bode ill for many residents of opposition-held northwestern Syria, who viewed the Turkish military presence as a prevention against further government advances and a possible ticket to return to their homes in areas recently captured by Syrian troops.
“It was a lie that kept many people there feeling safe,” said Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a resident of Idlib who has been displaced from another province. “Keeping these posts in place gave some hope for people to go back. After retreating, this means these were (only there to contain public) anger.
“These posts did nothing for us as Syrian people but to deliver more land (to) the (Syrian) regime,” he said.
Separately, the internal trade ministry in government-controlled Syria announced new increases in diesel and gasoline prices as it grapples with a fuel shortage that has caused long lines and hikes in public transportation prices in recent weeks.
The fuel increases target industrial diesel, which more than doubled in price, reaching 650 Syrian liras (50 cents) per liter. Ninety-five-octane gasoline for automobiles is now set at 1,050 liras (80 cents) per liter.
A deepening economic crisis has gripped areas controlled by the government of President Bashar Assad, sparking rare public protests in the tightly controlled war-torn country over the summer.
There have been long lines of vehicles outside gas stations as the cash-strapped government struggles to secure resources. Bakeries have also had lines and many have closed amid wheat shortages, which further threaten to deepen food insecurity in Syria.
Besides years of war and corruption, the government also faces tightening U.S. sanctions, which it blames for the economic meltdown.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed.