Turkish tanks on the Syrian border (File)

Turkey held military exercises on its border with Syria on Saturday, amid uncertainty over US withdrawal from the northeast and expansion of a hardline Islamist bloc in the northwest.

Troops, tanks, and armored vehicles maneuvered near Idlib Province, where the hardline Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has taken towns and villages in the past two weeks in the last major opposition area of Syria. There were claims that a Turkish convoy crossed the border.

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A “Turkish security source” had said on Friday that the army is rotating forces in and out of the region, but would not say if the exercises are preparation for operations inside Syria.

The Defense Ministry said on Saturday that Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar and head of intelligence Fidan visited border military units as they discussed “measures to establish peace and stability in the region”.

“We are making every effort to preserve the ceasefire and stability in Idlib, in line with the Sochi agreement. Our close cooperation with Russia continues,” Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said.

Russia and Turkey announced a demilitarized zone around Idlib and northern Hama Provinces in September. The agreement suspended an imminent offensive by Russia and the Assad regime to overrun the opposition area.

On Friday, Moscow said it is still committed to the agreement, but is worried by “ceasefire violations”.

Is US Withdrawing?

Turkey is also watching the confusion over US policy and operations, with differing signals from Washington over Donald Trump’s December 19 order for the departure of all 2,000 American troops.

Last week National Security Agency John Bolton said the troops would not leave until the Islamic State was completely defeated and there were assurances that Turkey would not attack Kurdish factions with whom the US has worked since 2015.

Bolton’s remarks about a Turkish threat angered Ankara, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refusing to meet the National Security Advisor when Bolton visited the Turkish capital on Tuesday.

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Later in the week US military officials suddenly said that withdrawal had begun, but the Pentagon soon scaled down the statement: no troops had been pulled out, only some equipment.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, touring the Middle East, made general statements that the withdrawal would be completed and that the US would work with both Turkey and Kurdish groups to avoid any conflict. Trump, who impulsively decided on departure during a phone call with Erdoğan, is now silent on the issue.

The US works with the Kurdish militia YPG, the leading faction in the Syrian Democratic Forces who have pushed back the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria since October 2015.

Turkey considers the YPG to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK, and Erdoğan has vowed the “erasure” of the “terrorists”.