The Turkish army is expanding its deployment in northwest Syria with the goal of reining in Russian strikes in the Idlib border province, under a deal to reduce clashes.
The Turkish army expanded its troop presence in Syria’s northwest on Sunday as part of efforts to enforce a so-called “de-escalation zone” agreement reached by rebel backer Ankara and regime allies Russia and Iran at talks in Astana earlier this year.
At least four convoys carrying dozens of armoured vehicles and equipment passed the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, heading for several locations inside rebel-held Idlib, Reuters reported citing witnesses.
“Nearly 200 troops are now stationed in areas that separate territory under control of Kurdish groups and opposition groups,” said Ibrahim al Idlibi, a military adviser in the opposition’s Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Witnesses said Turkish bulldozers were working around the clock, digging fortifications and setting up observation posts.
Turkey’s military said on Friday it had begun “activities to establish observation posts on October 12”, days after Turkish troops launched a reconnaissance mission in Idlib.
On Friday, Turkey’s Hurriyet daily reported over 100 soldiers including special forces, and 30 armoured vehicles, had entered Idlib.
Meanwhile, a new convoy entered on Saturday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
The province is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group led by al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, which has ousted more moderate rebels in recent months.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish troops had entered Syria with the Free Syrian Army, the name Ankara uses for rebels seeking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster.
Turkey says it is backing Syrian rebels in a bid to oust HTS members in the area and allow Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces to implement the zone.
The “de-escalation” zone in Idlib is the one of four agreed in Astana and the last to be implemented, after.
Idlib is one of the last major areas of Syria beyond the control of the government, which has recaptured vast swathes of territory from opposition fighters since its ally Russia intervened on its behalf in September 2015.
Turkey has intervened in Syria before, last year launching its operation Euphrates Shield targeting the Islamic State group and Kurdish fighters.
More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.