Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (pictured) has declared that Ankara is trying to separate rebels from the jihadist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib Province in northwest Syria, hoping to move towards implementation of a de-escalation zone.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey declared the zone last month in talks in the Kazakh capital Astana. Ankara has said that it will join Moscow in deploying forces to monitor a truce.
However, Russia and the Assad regime have already unsettled the arrangement with a bombing campaign since September 19, hitting civilian sites such as hospitals, civil defense centers, and power stations as well as rebel factions who endorsed the Astana agreement.
Reports did not mention any Cavusoglu comments about the Russian-regime bombing. Instead, he spoke of a first stage to detach “moderate rebels” from “terror organizations”.
A “rebel source” supported the comments, referring to the Jabhat al-Nusra faction, now renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and leading HTS: “With regards to Nusra, they are working to weaken it through intelligence operations.”
The source said operations could include assassinations and campaigns to undercut HTS support in Idlib communities.
Turkey was a supporter of opposition groups since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, but has moved away from their position since reconciling with Russia last year.
Ankara’s military intervened in August 2016, supporting a Free Syrian Army offensive that took territory from the Islamic State along the Turkish-Syrian border and in northern Aleppo Province. However, the Erdoğan Government, apparently under a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, stood aside as pro-Assad forces recaptured all of Aleppo city by December 2016.
HTS established its leading presence in Idlib Province, almost of all has been held by the opposition since spring 2015, with a summer offensive that pushed the other prevalent faction, Ahrar al-Sham, out of many of its positions.
Cavusoglu said of the situation in Idlib:
Think of a family with four sons. Two of them are members of the Free Syrian Army, which everybody supports, one is not related to anything and the last one is a member of a terror organization.
What do we do? Will we bomb this family and kill them all; the mother, father and small children? We have to determine the one and separate him from the others.
Russia: We Have Critcally Injured HTS Leader al-Joulani
The Russian Defense Ministry claims its warplanes have critically injured HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani and killed at least 12 field commanders.
Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said al-Joulani was the target of the airstrike.
Russia has claimed in the past that it has carried out high-profile assassinations through aerial operations, killing critcally wounding targets including Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Last week al-Baghdadi issues his first audio statement in more than a year, as ISIS waged a counter-attack in eastern Syria against pro-Assad forces including Russian troops.
On Tuesday the Islamic State released a video showing two Russian soldiers reportedly captured south of Deir ez-Zor city.