Military sources said yesterday that Ankara and Moscow are closely monitoring the terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's (HTS) attempts to enlarge its sphere of control in Syria's Idlib, adding that the two countries have been intensely cooperating to prevent such actions.
"We keep an ear close to the ground on these efforts. There has been ongoing coordination with Russia on the issue," said the sources regarding the latest situation in Idlib.
Turkey and Russia signed the Sochi agreement in September last year to decrease tensions and avoid new conflicts in the province. Since then, meetings between officials from the two countries have continued.
As a part of these efforts, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu to discuss the latest developments in Syria, particularly in Idlib. According to the Defense Ministry statement released after the meeting, the ministers exchanged views on the measures that could be taken to ensure security in the demilitarized zone in Idlib.
They also agreed to continue intelligence and military cooperation in Idlib to ensure peace and security in the region. Speaking after the meeting, Akar said that efforts to boost bilateral relations are "valuable" and will contribute to peace and regional stability. "Beyond that, I believe that this will indeed contribute to world peace," Akar added.
Turkey designated the HTS as a terrorist group in August. The HTS is the most powerful terrorist alliance in Idlib, the last major opposition-controlled enclave outside Bashar Assad's control. After the fall of Aleppo in November 2016, dozens of opposition groups, including the HTS, squeezed into Idlib.
The press officer of the Defense Ministry, Şebnem Aktop, told reporters yesterday that the fundamental point of joint efforts between Turkey and Russia is the protection of territorial integrity and political unity of Syria, which "terrorist organizations have tried to disintegrate."
The meeting between Akar and Shoigu comes just before a trilateral leader's summit between Turkey, Russia and Iran that will be held in the Russian city of Sochi tomorrow with the participation of the presidents of the three countries.
The leaders are expected to discuss a process for a political solution in Syria. Initiated by Turkey, Russian and Iran, the Astana process aims to bring all warring parties in the Syrian conflict to the table to facilitate peace talks.
The military sources also emphasized that they are expecting the U.S. to implement the Manbij road map as soon as possible, as Turkey will not allow the formation of a terrorist corridor near its southern borders.
In order to prevent the PKK and its extensions from tightening their grip in northeast Syria and disrupting peace efforts in the region, Turkey aims to accelerate the Manbij process that was launched in June with the U.S.
As part of the deal, Turkey and the U.S. agreed to work on the withdrawal of the PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG) from Manbij. The aim of the Manbij deal is to ensure security and stability in the province by eliminating YPG terrorists, who currently control the region in northern Syria; ultimately handing the administration of the province to a body consisting of local people.
However, Ankara says progress on the Manbij deal has been "sluggish" and slower than initially planned due to what has been described as the disingenuous attitude of the U.S.
Speaking on joint efforts between Ankara and Washington to defuse tension in the region, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the cooperation of the two NATO allies as welcoming.
Stressing that Turkey and the U.S. have been developing collaboration in Syria via bilateral meetings in NATO meetings, Stoltenberg said he hopes that such efforts will continue during the NATO defense ministers' meeting slated for today and tomorrow in Brussels.
Defense Minister Akar is expected to meet Patrick Shanahan, the acting U.S. defense secretary, on the sidelines of today's meeting, according to an official Turkish statement.