ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebel fighters are launching a major military operation backed by Turkish forces into a northwestern area of Syria largely controlled by jihadists, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday.
Rebels said they were preparing to start the operation soon in Idlib province and surrounding areas, which represent Syria’s most populous rebel-held area, and residents reported Turkish authorities removing sections of a border wall.
The incursion is being carried out after Iran and Russia, which back President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which supports the rebels, agreed last month to reduce fighting between insurgents and the government in the northwest.
It seems aimed at curbing the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, Syria’s strongest jihadist group apart from Islamic State, and at securing Turkey’s frontier.
“There’s a serious operation in Syria’s Idlib today and it will continue,” Erdogan said in a speech to his AK Party, adding that Turkey would not allow a “terror corridor” on its border with Syria.
“For now the Free Syrian Army is carrying out the operation there,” Erdogan said. “Russia is supporting the operation from the air, and our armed forces from inside Turkey’s borders,” he added.
Late on Saturday, Turkey deployed tanks and military vehicles on its Syrian border, building up military presence, a Reuters witness said.
Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in the Liwa al-Mutasem Syrian insurgent group taking part in the operation, said Russia would not be backing the rebels in the campaign.
“As for the Russians, they will not have a role in the areas of our control at all. The role of the Russians is limited to areas under regime control,” he said.
Ankara, Moscow and Tehran announced a deal last month to establish and patrol a “de-escalation” zone in the Idlib region, where Erdogan has said Turkey will deploy troops.