Syria’s envoy to the United Nations on Tuesday railed against Turkey’s growing influence in the north, calling it an “occupation” and vowing to “expel” its troops.
Turkey, a main backer of Syria’s opposition, has sent troops into northern Syria to battle the Islamic State group and Kurdish militants. It has also deployed troops in the opposition stronghold of Idlib as part of a de-escalation agreement with Iran and Russia, both of which are close allies of the government.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari condemned the presence of the Turkish troops during the 10th round of talks hosted by Russia in Sochi, which bring together Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian government and representatives of the opposition. He said the government remains determined to regain control over all of Syria and will not tolerate the long-term presence of Turkish troops, saying “we will expel them.”
His comments came amid speculation that the government will launch a major offensive in Idlib, after it drove rebels out of areas around Damascus and southwestern Syria. Ja’afari said the de-escalation agreement “tests” whether Turkey is serious about fighting “terrorist groups.” President Bashar Assad’s government refers to all opposition fighters as terrorists.
The Russian presidential envoy for Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentyev, dismissed what he called “rumors” of an imminent offensive in Idlib, but he said between 300 and 500 people have left the provincial capital, of the same name, through corridors maintained by the Russian military.
Idlib is home to more than 3 million people, nearly half of them displaced from other parts of Syria, including armed groups who refused to accept the restoration of government authority following military offensives and capitulation deals.
“There is not talk and cannot be any talk of any operation, any large-scale offensive in Idlib,” Lavrentyev said, according to Russian news agency Interfax. “The only issue we raise, and raise it quite firmly, is that it is necessary to stop the activity of terrorist groups” in the province.
He also announced that the Russian-backed military operation in southwestern Syria is over. The offensive began on June 19, and has uprooted armed opposition groups from Daraa and Quneitra provinces.
For the first time since 2014, Syrian troops have regained control along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, though they are still battling the remnants of an Islamic State-linked group.
Ja’afari said Syria reserves the right to retake Idlib militarily if reconciliation talks fail. But Idlib is home to some of the most hard-line opposition groups, including al-Qaida-linked militants who have been excluded from all peace efforts.
Turkey, which also attended the talks, said in a statement that the Idlib truce is a “main component” of its agreements with Russia and Iran, saying “its functionality must be preserved.”