Turkish President Announces 'Serious Operation' In Northern Syria

Turkey has been conducting military drills along its border with Iraq. It also has an active military presence along its border with Syria. Rising security concerns in its neighbourhood are pushing Turkey to increase its defence spending

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that Turkish soldiers were not in Syria's Idlib yet, but that Free Syria Army was carrying out the operation, news channel NTV reported.

Earlier in the day, Turkish howitzers on the border fired around five shots in support of allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters who had entered Idlib, which is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaida affiliate that changed its name previous year from the Nusra Front.

The Turkish president said the operation in Idlib is the follow-up of the Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria, which was launched on August 24, 2016, in a bid to clear Turkey's border of the Islamic State (IS) militants and other terrorists.

On one side is a "current that believes it is necessary to engage with Turkey and other countries and no longer be designated" a terrorist group, he said. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura estimated in August previous year that more than 400,000 people had been killed in the crisis until then.

A Syrian rebel commander told AFP on Saturday that the Ankara-backed operation in Idlib aimed to drive Tahrir Al Sham from the entire province.

The US maintains that the group is still linked to al Qaeda, however.

"We will absolutely not allow the creation of a terror corridor along our borders", said Erdogan in his speech.

Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency said there was a major build up of Turkish commando units and military vehicles around the town of Reyhanli bordering Idlib close to the Cilvegozu border crossing.

Turkey "will ensure security in Idlib, and we are working with Russia", Yildirim said.

Turkey has long opposed any political transition under him, but Russia's intervention in Syria's civil war shored up the president after years of Turkish and US insistence that he must go.

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

Syrian rebels backed by Turkish troops make up the Euphrates Shield military alliance, which controls parts of northern Syria an offensive against Kurdish and Islamic State group forces.

Civilians in Idlib have been subjected to an escalation of bombardment of hospitals and infrastructure by the Russian Federation and Iran-backed Assad regime, prompting the hashtag #IdlibisBurning.

Syria's former Al Qaeda affiliate was once a key ally for many rebels but they are now abandoning it as the jihadists face a Turkey-backed operation in its stronghold.

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