ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Wednesday to drive back Syrian troops in Idlib unless they withdraw by the end of the month to stem an assault which he said had displaced nearly 1 million people.
Shelling by Syrian government forces killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday, prompting Turkish forces to strike back. The escalation raised concerns over future collaboration between Ankara and Moscow, which have backed opposing sides in the war despite joint efforts to ease the violence.
Erdogan said two of Turkey’s 12 observation posts, set up around a “de-escalation zone” in northwest Syria’s Idlib region as part of a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, were now behind Syrian government front lines.
“We hope that the process of the regime pulling back behind our observation posts is completed in the month of February,” he told members of his AK Party. “If the regime does not pull back during this time, Turkey will have to do this job itself.”
He said the Turkish military would carry out air and ground operations in Idlib, when necessary.
Erdogan has said Moscow, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Ankara, which has backed rebels who tried to topple him, should resolve the conflict “without anger” and agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to improve coordination of their countries’ actions in Syria.
The violence in Idlib has accelerated in recent months despite several ceasefire efforts, including as recently as January, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
U.N. regional spokesman David Swanson said 520,000 people had been displaced since the beginning of December and the numbers could swell further.
Erdogan said nearly one million people were moving toward the Turkish border and Syrian territory under Turkish control. “No one has the right to place such a weight on our shoulders,” he said.
(Reporting by Nevzat Devranoglu; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Dominic Evans)