The Turkish army has begun setting up “observation posts” in Syria’s largely jihadist-controlled north western Idlib province as part of its efforts to create a de-escalation zone, the military said on Friday.
“On October 12, we began activities to establish observation posts,” the military said in a statement, after local media reported that Turkish troops and armoured vehicles entered Idlib province late Thursday.
Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, which ousted more moderate rebels in recent months.
Over 100 soldiers, including special forces, and 30 armoured vehicles entered Idlib, Turkey’s Hurriyet daily reported on Friday, as it speculated more troops could be sent to the province over the next few days.
The Turkish army is backing pro-Ankara Syrian rebels, who will need to oust HTS members in the area to allow Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces to implement the de-escalation zone.
The move comes after the Turkish army launched a reconnaissance mission on Sunday as part of efforts by Turkey, along with Russia and Iran, to set up the zone in line with accords in Astana peace talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
They agreed on four such ceasefire zones in Syria as a prelude to negotiations.
Three zones are already in place — in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, in central Homs, and in parts of southern Syria — which is being monitored by Russian military police.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed late Thursday that a military convoy of Turkish forces entered Idlib before heading towards the western part of Aleppo province.
The fourth de-escalation zone includes Idlib but also parts of the neighbouring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo regions.
While Turkey supports Syrian opposition fighters and calls for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Ankara has worked closely in the last few months with Russia — who supports Assad — in the hope of bringing the war to an end.
The Syrian conflict began after widespread protests against the government in 2011 but has since turned into a multi-front war that has killed more than 330,000 people.