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Turkey says major operation underway in Syria's Idlib


Turkey said on Saturday that it and Syrian rebel groups it backs are starting a military operation in Syria's Idlib, where a jihadist alliance is blocking efforts to impose a truce between insurgents and the Syrian government.

Turkish commando units and military vehicles have reportedly massed on the border but are yet to cross, in what will be Ankara's second major Syria operation after its Euphrates Shield incursion previous year. "We have to extend our hand to them, and that is the step that was taken and will continue", Erdogan said.

"We will ensure safety in Idlib, and will cooperate with Russia", Yildirim said at a meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in central Afyonkarahisar province. He also said that Russian and Iranian observers would also be deployed in some areas, without providing further details.

At the height of its power two years ago Islamic State ruled over millions of people, from northern Syria to the outskirts of Iraq's capital Baghdad, but it has since endured a series of losses under attack from many sides.

Turkey launched an incursion into Syria further east of Idlib previous year, backing Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in the Euphrates Shield operation against Islamic State and Kurdish groups. There are no known plans by the Kurdish forces to take on al-Qaida-linked militants in Idlib.

Earlier in the day, Erdogan had asserted that Turkey was not going to allow an "operation" against the territorial integrity of its neighbors.

Earlier on Saturday, Turkey continued to build up its number of troops on the southern border with Syria, close to the earmarked de-escalation zone near the city of Idlib.

An armoured Turkish police vehicle is parked near the U.S. Embassy in Ankara Turkey on Dec. 20 2016
An armoured Turkish police vehicle is parked near the U.S. Embassy in Ankara Turkey on Dec. 20 2016

"A Turkish intervention has been on the table for a long time", he said, adding that Turkey had been working to encourage defections in order "to isolate the group associated with Jolani".

Turkish TV channels showed live images of Turkish tanks lined up along the border with Syria, as well as heavy machinery working to remove parts of the border wall between the two countries.

In his speech, Erdogan said: "Idlib is a region where we will provide protection in the inside and Russian Federation on the outside".

"The Free Syrian Army with support from Turkish troops is in full readiness to enter the area but until this moment there is no movement", he said.

Idlib is the last remaining area in northern Syria where anti-Assad rebel groups have a foothold.

Moscow has been carrying out air raids in support of its ally Damascus targeting both ISIL in Deir Az Zor province and rival groups led by al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate in Idlib province in the northwest.

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