The Syrian army has boxed in 9 of the 12 Turkish outposts set up in the northwest province of Idlib, as both armies prepare for a final showdown over the last Syrian province still holding out against the Assad regime.
Ankara beefed up its Idlib outposts in the eastern sector of the province after Syrian shelling killed eight Turkish troops and the Syrian army reached the southern outskirts of Idlib city.
On Saturday, Feb. 8, a high-ranking Russian delegation arrived in Ankara to try and avert an all-out confrontation between the Turkish and Syrian armies over Idlib. On Friday night, meanwhile, the Turkish army boosted its strength with reinforcements. A large convoy of 150 APCs carrying special Turkish commando forces crossed the border and the Turkish army was placed on war readiness. They were acting out President Recep Erdogan’s vow on Tuesday not to allow Syrian forces to gain additional territory in Idlib province.
But two days later he faced the embarrassment of Syrian military gains. The Syrians reacted to this threat by pushing into the southern outskirts of Idlib City and capturing Maarat al-Numan and Saraqib from pro-Turkish Syrian rebels, with the help of Afghan Shiite militias under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers and the support of heavy Russian aerial bombardments. The two strategic towns control the M4 and M5 northern highway links to Aleppo and Damascus.
Erdogan threatened Moscow that if the Syrian push continued with Russian air force support, the Astana pact, which Moscow initiated two years ago between Russia, Turkey and Iran for an agreed political resolution of the Syrian conflict, would fall apart. The Idlib battles have already generated a mass outflow of refugees from the province. Erdogan has threatened that if the Syrian army continues its campaign, he would not stop an estimated outflow of 1.5 to 3 million refugees expected to surge into Turkey from reaching Europe.