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Turkish defense chief warns Syrian rebels against ‘provocation’

As the Turkish president eyes a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, the Turkish defense chief warns Ankara-backed armed groups against “provocations” amid ongoing Syrian protests against the Damascus-Ankara thaw.  
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar is seen seated at the start of the North Atlantic Council meeting on the final day of the NATO defense ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 13, 2022.

As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan eyes a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, the Turkish defense chief on Friday warned the Syrian armed groups backed by Turkey against “provocations,” in response to the opposition groups' protests against the recent Ankara-Damascus rapprochement.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar reiterated that Turkey would not “say yes to any decision or a meeting that would be against or would harm, trouble or violate the rights [of the Syrian opposition]."

“Our Syrian siblings should steer away from any kind of provocations and not fall for games,” he said speaking in Turkey’s northern province of Tokat. 

Akar’s remarks came a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he could meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “As Russia-Turkey-Syria, we have launched a process through the meeting of our intelligence chiefs and defense ministers in Moscow,” Erdogan said on Thursday during a speech in Ankara, in reference to the milestone talks held in Moscow last week. “Then, God willing, we will bring our foreign ministers together trilaterally. Then, depending on the developments, we will come together as leaders.” 

Syrian opposition groups fighting to oust Assad have been protesting the recent thaw between Ankara and Damascus coming after 11 years of animosity between the two capitals. Following the talks in Moscow between the Turkish, Syrian and Russian defense ministers and intelligence chiefs last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced last Saturday that Turkey gave a nod to a Russian offer to hold another three-way meeting between the three countries' top diplomats in mid-January. 

Russia and Iran — major allies of the Syrian government — have long been pressing Turkey to engage into direct political talks with Damascus. The recent thaw between the two former foes comes at a time when Turkey threatens to launch a new ground operation against the US-allied Syrian Kurdish groups that Ankara considers "terrorists."

Akar reiterated the threats on Friday, saying that his country was determined to continue its fight "until the last terrorist is eliminated" regardless "whoever supports them," in apparent reference to the United States. 

Turkey has thrown its support behind the Syrian rebels since the beginning of the civil war with severing its diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2012. Akar said on Friday that Turkey was already hosting some 4 million Syrian refugees and that his country could hardly allow more refugee flows from Syria. 

“A new wave of influx is not acceptable for us,” he said, adding that his country's actions were "mainly aiming to keep those people there."

Any Syrian government offensive against the country’s last rebel stronghold Idlib would likely set off a new exodus from the civil war-torn country to Turkey. Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib is mainly controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadist outfit designated as a terrorist organization by most of the international community.

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