Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has issued an unusual warning to armed groups holding sway in Syria’s province of Idlib, raising questions as to whether Ankara might try a strategy shift to halt the Syrian army’s advance in the region. “We are sending additional troops to secure and maintain the cease-fire [in Idlib]. We are going to control the area,” Akar said Feb. 13, referring to the cease-fire agreed upon between Ankara and Moscow last month. “Force will be used against those disobeying the cease-fire, radicals included. All measures will be taken,” he added. The warning came as Turkish military reinforcements poured into Idlib and Washington appeared to prod Ankara to press ahead in Syria, while Russia expected Turkey to gear down.
Turkish-Russian talks on the situation in Idlib have remained inconclusive and while Washington made a pledge to “stand by our NATO ally,” this failed to produce anything concrete when special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey visited Ankara on Feb. 12. In the meanwhile, regime forces continued to advance in Idlib despite a warning by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey would intervene unless they return to the demarcation line of the Sochi deal by the end of February. The boundaries Erdogan refers to were outlined as a “de-escalation zone” at the Astana summit in May 2017 and then Turkey and Russia agreed on conditions on the modus operandi in the zone as part of the deal they reached in September 2018 in Sochi, Russia.