Syrian forces surround Turkish army post

Updated August 24, 2019

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MAARET al NUMAN: Members of Syria’s civil defence force sift through the rubble of a building following a government air strike 
in  northwestern Idlib province.—AFP
MAARET al NUMAN: Members of Syria’s civil defence force sift through the rubble of a building following a government air strike in northwestern Idlib province.—AFP

BEIRUT: Syrian government forces surrounded a Turkish observation post in the northwest on Friday after overrunning nearby areas, sparking anger from Ankara which vowed not to leave its outpost.

Speaking at a news conference in the Lebanese capital, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “our observation point there is not cut-off and nobody can isolate our forces and our soldiers.” “We are there, not because we can’t leave but because we don’t want to leave,” he said, adding that the issue was being discussed with Damascus allies Russia and Iran.

The Syrian regime has upped the stakes with Turkey in its months-long Russian-backed offensive against the jihadist-ruled Idlib region.

Moscow said that it has agreed with Ankara to “activate mutual efforts” to ease the situation in Syria’s last major opposition bastion.

The town of Morek, where the Turkish troops have been cut off, lies in the north of Hama province, part of the region centred on neighbouring Idlib province that has been under government assault since late April.

Government forces took control of Morek and nearby towns including Kafr Zita on Friday, Syrian state news agency SANA said.

Jihadists and allied rebels withdrew from the area ahead of the army’s entry into the strategic town of Khan Sheikhun on Wednesday and government forces took control without resistance, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Regime forces have surrounded the Turkish observation post in Morek after capturing other towns and villages in this pocket,” said the Britain-based monitor.

The Morek observation post, established under a deal with Moscow, is one of 12 the Turkish army set up along the front line between Syrian government forces on one side — and the jihadists and Ankara’s rebel allies on the other side — last year.

On Tuesday Cavusoglu vowed that the Turkish army “will do whatever is necessary” to defend these positions.

The Turkish presidency has also said that it will not abandon any of its observation posts in Syria.

The Turkish troops’ mission was to oversee the establishment of a buffer zone agreed by Ankara and Moscow in September.

But the jihadists failed to pull back from the zone as agreed and in April, government and Russian forces resumed intense bombardment of the region. The Kremlin on Friday said that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to “activate mutual efforts” to ease the situation in the Idlib region.

“They discussed the issues of Russian-Turkish cooperation in the context of stabilisation of the de-escalation zone,” a statement said.

Erdogan is to host his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a summit in Ankara next month to discuss the latest developments.

The Turkish presidency said regime attacks in Idlib have led to a “grave humanitarian crisis”. “These attacks damage the efforts to regulate the Syrian conflict,” it said.

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2019