(Bloomberg) -- Turkey vowed to pummel anyone violating a cease-fire in Syria’s last opposition stronghold, as it tries to halt a Syrian government advance that’s threatening its efforts to establish a zone of control there.
The Turkish military deployed thousands of troops over the past week to Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, where Syrian forces backed by Russian aircraft have besieged Turkish observation posts set up under accords meant to contain fighting. Fourteen Turkish soldiers and civilians have died in the violence, which has triggered a fierce Turkish response and put strains on a strategic alliance with Moscow.
“We’re sending additional troops to make the cease-fire permanent and we will control the area,” Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said during a NATO meeting in Brussels on Thursday. “Force will be used against anyone violating the cease-fire including the radicals,” he said, referring to onetime al-Qaeda militants who largely control Idlib, along with Turkish-backed rebels.
A recapture of the province would mark a major strategic victory for Assad and give Turkey less leverage in postwar Syria. Ankara’s deepening involvement in the Syrian civil war weakened the lira for a third day on Thursday, to levels not seen since May, as geopolitical risks grew.
Turkey has been drawn into the Syrian conflict on multiple levels. It’s been fighting Syrian Kurdish separatists it accuses of having designs on Turkish territory populated by Kurds, and joined the U.S.-led coalition that drove out Islamic State. It’s also home to the largest Syrian refugee population -- some 4 million people -- and the fighting in Idlib threatens to send hundreds of thousands more into Turkey, something President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his country cannot afford.
Accords reached with Russia and Iran were meant to avert a Syrian government offensive that would touch off such a refugee flight.
Throughout the latest standoff over Idlib, Turkey and Russia have kept channels of communication open in an effort to keep their uneasy partnership in Syria alive. But Moscow and Damascus haven’t been deterred by the Turkish troop buildup, and on Wednesday, Russia directly accused Turkey for the first time of not honoring agreements meant to reduce the violence in Idlib.
The tough talk came after Erdogan vowed to drive Russian-backed Syrian government forces away from Idlib if they don’t pull back by the end of February.
Russia Pins Blame on Turkey for First Time for Syria Escalation
The showdown over the rebel-held zone has won Turkey a rare vote of support from the U.S., whose alliance with Ankara has been strained most recently by the Turkish military’s purchase of Russian missiles developed to down American stealth aircraft.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria engagement and its special representative to the global coalition to defeat Islamic State, said after talks with Turkish officials in Ankara on Wednesday that the U.S. would review intelligence sharing and equipment transfers to Turkey, NTV television reported.
--With assistance from Tony Halpin.
To contact the reporters on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at firstname.lastname@example.org;Firat Kozok in Ankara at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at firstname.lastname@example.org, Amy Teibel, Mark Williams
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