Turkey is sending additional troops, tanks and howitzers into Syria to boost its forces on the ground before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s backing an operation that could send hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey.
The reinforcements came as Turkey’s top general, Yasar Guler, inspected troop positions at the border provinces of Hatay and Gaziantep on Friday, according to AHaber television. Turkey has been massing troops in Syria’s Idlib since Putin rejected Erdogan’s call for a cease-fire during a summit meeting in Tehran last week.
The Turkish and Russian leaders have deepened their friendship over the past two years, but remain at odds over the war in Syria, where Russia has backed President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey supports some Sunni rebel groups that have sought to overthrow him. Putin and Erdogan are expected to meet in Sochi again on Monday.
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week, Erdogan suggested that Turkey, along with the fighters it has backed in Syria, could play a crucial role in eliminating the threat from al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in Idlib, one of the last territories still held by Islamists rebelling against Assad. Backed by Moscow and Tehran, Assad is preparing a battle to seize control of Idlib, cementing victory after a seven-year civil war in which more than half a million people have been killed.
Turkey fears that if Assad recaptures the territory, a new wave of refugees will stream over its border, adding to the 3.5 million Syrians already there. In pushing back against Russia and Tehran, Turkey has also been trying to ensure that so-called moderate rebel groups remain viable and able to play a role at any future peace negotiations.
“Turkey is beefing up its forces in Idlib, who might be threatened deep inside Syria in case of a flareup of violence,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, said by phone on Friday. “That also amounts to a message to Syria and its allies that it does not want to step aside.”
The United Nations estimates there are 10,000 fighters in Idlib with links to al-Qaeda. Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have insisted that the war must go on until they are crushed.
The U.S. has backed Kurdish fighters from the YPG, who now control most of Syria’s northeast. That’s put the U.S. into conflict with Turkey because the Syrian Kurds are linked to a separatist group called the PKK, which both Turkey and the U.S. consider a terrorist organization. Assad has not launched an assault to recapture territory held by the Kurds.