A Turkish military vehicle drives on a patrol along a road in a demilitarized zone near the village of Ishtabraq in the mostly militant-held northern Idlib province on March 17, 2019. (Photo by AFP)
Turkey has denied Russian assertions that a ceasefire had been put in place in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib and demanded Russia restore calm in the last major bastion of foreign-backed terrorists.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry claimed on Thursday that Syrian government forces had carried out a deliberate attack on one of its observation posts in the troubled region. The assault, it said, lightly wounded three Turkish soldiers and damaged equipment and facilities.
The ministry said it had raised the issue with Russian counterparts as a fellow guarantor of the de-escalation zone around the militant-riddled territory agreed in September last year.
But Russia’s Ministry of Defense blamed “terrorists” based in Idlib for the attack and said the Turkish army had asked Moscow to ensure the safety of its personnel and to strike militant hideouts in the region
As a result, Russian warplanes carried out four airstrikes against the targets, the coordinates of which were provided by the Turkish military, a ministry statement noted.
It also added that a large number of militants and artillery pieces had been destroyed in the aerial raids.
Russia and Turkey earlier brokered a full ceasefire agreement in Idlib aimed at halting clashes between government forces and militants in the area.
Moscow, a Damascus ally, and Ankara, which backs a number of militant groups in Syria, signed an agreement last September to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib that would be evacuated of all heavy weapons and militants.
That agreement put on hold a Syrian government offensive to liberate Idlib, where between 10,000 and 15,000 militants are estimated to be holed up.
Militants, however, have persisted in their stay in the zone and refused to leave the area under the deal. Furthermore, terror outfits have repeatedly violated the truce by launching numerous attacks on outposts held by the Syrian army and Russian forces.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said Moscow and Damascus would give a “crushing” response to militants launching attacks in Idlib.
Moscow says it is Turkey’s duty to rein in the armed groups that it supports and help separate them from the Takfiri terror outfits, which form a majority of the militant groups inside Idlib.
Russia and Turkey, along with Iran, are guarantors of a Syria-wide ceasefire. The trio has been mediating a diplomatic process between the Syrian government and armed groups since early 2017.
Idlib remains the only large area in the hands of anti-Damascus militants after government forces — backed by Iran and Russia — managed to undo militant gains across the country and bring back almost all of Syrian soil under government control.
In recent weeks, Syrian armed forces have been conducting counter-terrorism operations in areas surrounding Idlib.
The Syrian army has warned civilians to leave Idlib amid preparations for a final military campaign to flush terrorists out of the region.