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Turkey has started relocating besieged military outposts in northwestern Syria that are intended to help prevent an all-out assault on one of the war’s last front lines and a new exodus of refugees.
Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, have closed in on the Turkish facilities in recent weeks as they attempt to take the final major opposition bastion of Idlib after a decade of conflict.
Turkish military officials have discussed new locations with their Russian counterparts, people familiar with the matter said. Ankara remains committed to deterring an onslaught on Idlib that could kill thousands and push millions to flee toward the Turkish border, they said.
The move could bring some Turkish outposts closer to areas controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a breakaway faction of al-Qaeda that has emerged as the dominant force in Idlib after other rebel groups were crushed in relentless bombings by Russia and Syrian forces, one of the people said. That could increase the risk of a possible confrontation with militants that Russia wants Turkey to eliminate, the person said.
Shifting the military posts, where hundreds of troops are protected by tanks, artillery and armored vehicles, reflects the difficult position Turkey faces.
Its troops fought Bashar al-Assad’s army for weeks earlier this year, including with artillery and drone strikes, to stall the offensive on Idlib.
Recapturing the province would allow the Syrian government to expand links between the capital, Damascus, and the former commercial hub Aleppo, and to declare final victory in the war.
A deal with Moscow ended the clashes in March, yet it left eight of 12 Turkish outposts surrounded and failed to deliver the substantial enclave Erdogan had demanded for the resettlement of nearly four million Syrians already in Turkey.
The zone would have given Turkey a pretext to maintain troops and thereby some influence in postwar Syria, near northeastern regions where Kurdish fighters who’ve been backed by the U.S. in the conflict with Islamic State operate.
Turkey wants to obstruct the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish area on its frontier that could rekindle a war for autonomy by the allied PKK on Turkish territory. The PKK, which has been confronting Turkey for decades, is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union.
In March, Turkey rejected a Russian proposal to move Ankara’s forces further north in Idlib province.
According to the people familiar with the planning, the Turkish government is now changing its posture to ensure the safety of its troops, following talks with Russian military officials on Sept. 16.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in a written response to questions this week that Turkey wants “to provide stability, stop the bloodshed, preserve gains, maintain the cease-fire and enable the return of Syrians to their homes.”
“In doing so, every precaution is taken for the safety of our troops,” he said.