After weeks of unheeded warnings to the Bashar Assad regime to stop its expansionist policies in Idlib by the end of February, Turkey declared the launch of its latest operation in the region yesterday.
The official announcement came from Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who said the Turkish military launched Operation Spring Shield in response to a brutal Assad regime attack on Feb. 27.
The defense minister noted that the only goal of the operation is self-defense against the regime soldiers and units that have attacked Turkish troops in the area.
"Some 2,200 Syrian regime troops, a drone, eight helicopters, 103 tanks, tens of howitzers and three air defense systems have been neutralized," Akar said.
The operation was launched after regime forces carried out airstrikes, killing 34 Turkish soldiers and injuring tens of others in the area.
It has been weeks since Turkey first announced that the end of February was the deadline for regime forces to withdraw from Turkish observation posts which were determined by the Sochi deal. Officials made it clear that unless the regime retreated, a Turkish military operation was in store.
"The solution in Idlib is the (Syrian) regime withdrawing to the borders in the agreements. Otherwise, we will handle this before the end of February," President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan previously said.
"Until we clear Syria of terrorist organizations and the cruelty of the (Syrian) regime, we will not rest easy," he added.
The Turkish military has 12 observation posts in Idlib, the last opposition-held bastion in Syria.
The posts were set up after a 2018 Russia-Turkey deal reached in Sochi to prevent a regime offensive, but in recent months, Assad has pressed on with an assault supported by Russian airstrikes.
Currently, Turkish soldiers are working to protect local civilians as part of a September 2018 deal with Russia, which prohibits acts of aggression in a de-escalation zone set up around Idlib.
Thursday's attack was one of a series since January targeting Turkish troops, with Turkish officials maintaining a pledge that such assaults would not go unanswered.
Highlighting that Turkey does not aim to face off against Russia, Akar said Turkey only wants to stop the Assad regime's massacres, radicalization and migration, though he added that Ankara expects Russia to use its power to end the Assad regime's aggression and persuade the regime to withdraw its forces to the borders outlined in the Sochi deal.
Erdoğan recently told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that Russia should stay out of Turkey's way in the fight against Assad forces. The president will be traveling to Moscow on March 5 to discuss the crisis with Putin.
Operation Spring Shield is the fourth Turkish military operation in northern Syria.
Turkey on Oct. 9 launched Operation Peace Spring to eliminate YPG terrorists from the area east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to secure Turkey's borders, aid in the safe return of Syrian refugees and ensure Syria's territorial integrity.
Besides Operation Peace Spring, Turkey carried out two cross-border operations west of the Euphrates River – Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in January 2018 – to drive out terrorists, including the YPG and Daesh, from its borders. Turkish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces entered Afrin town center and liberated it from terrorists on March 18.
While Turkey liberated northwestern territories from Daesh, it also prevented the YPG from establishing a de facto autonomous region in Syria connecting northwestern Afrin to Kobani and Jazeera in the northeast, which Ankara describes as a "terror corridor," posing a grave security threat to Turkey's national security.
Backed by heavy Russian airstrikes, Syrian regime forces have been fighting since the start of the year to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in the country. The advances have sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing toward the border with Turkey in the biggest single displacement of the nine-year war.
In September 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone, in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited. But more than 1,300 civilians have been killed in attacks by the regime and Russian forces in the de-escalation zone since then, as the cease-fire continues to be violated.
More than 1 million Syrians have moved near the Turkish border due to the intense attacks.
So far in this latest operation, three senior Assad regime generals were killed in Turkish drone strikes in Idlib, local sources confirmed Saturday.
Brig. Gen. Burhan Ramoun, Brig. Gen. Ismael Ali and Col. Mazar Farwati were killed in an airstrike carried out by unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) in the Jabal al-Zawiya region.
The Turkish army killed more than 2,100 Assad regime targets, the National Defense Ministry also said on Twitter.
The ministry also shared images of the regime elements neutralized in Idlib.
Separately, at least 21 Iranian-backed terrorists were killed in Idlib, according to Iranian news agency Hawzahnews.
Meanwhile, Akar, Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler and commanders of Turkish Land and Air Forces monitored the latest developments along the border, according to an Anadolu Agency correspondent at the scene.
Lt. Gen. Sinan Yayla informed Akar about daylong activities by armed unmanned aerial vehicles, multiple rocket launchers and maneuvering elements.
Turkey is in a historic and vital struggle for its present and future, Erdoğan said Saturday on the recent developments.
"We continue to make efforts day and night to protect the interests of our country and to allow our nation to come out with a victory at least as great as that we achieved 100 years ago," Erdoğan said on Twitter.
Erdoğan said Turkey was moving forward with the knowledge that shying away from struggle and not ensuring unity in a region that has always been subject to "occupations and oppressions" throughout its history would result in "paying a bigger price."
He prayed for mercy upon the souls of all martyrs who had lost their lives in the "great struggle" for the nation, saying: "The righteous struggle against oppression will continue till the end."
Noting that Turkey would never step back from its struggle, Erdoğan said no martyr's blood would be spilt in vain and no betrayal forgotten.
"As long as the nation stays by us, (Turkey) can overcome every difficulty and teach a historic lesson to those who think they can back us into a corner," he said.
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