Turkish military vehicles entered Syria’s Idlib province on Sunday under escort from the Tahriral-Sham militant alliance, a resident of the Syria-Turkey border area and a local rebel said.
They both said they saw several vehicles carrying Turkish forces entering Idlib at the Atmah crossing before Tahrir al-Sham fighters escorted them along a road.
On Saturday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces would launch an operation in that area, which is mostly controlled by Tahrir al-Sham.
On Sunday, a war monitor reported clashes between Turkish forces and the militant.
The incursion follows a deal between Turkey and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s allies Russia and Iran to impose a “de-escalation” zone in Idlib and surrounding areas to reduce warfare there, an agreement that did not include Tahrir al-Sham.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the clashes took place near the village of Kafr Lusin in Idlib.
Tahrir al-Sham is spearheaded by the former Nusra Front, which was al Qaeda’s Syrian branch until last year, when it changed its name and broke formal allegiance to the global movement founded by Osama bin Laden.
Turkey troops, Syria militants clashes
Turkish forces exchanged fire Sunday with militiants from al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate on the border of Idlib province, a monitor and eyewitnesses said, a day after Ankara announced an imminent operation there.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Saturday that pro-Ankara rebels would lead a military campaign in the northwestern Syrian province against the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militant coalition.
On Sunday morning, HTS militants opened fire on Turkish forces removing part of a wall along the border between Turkey and Idlib province, eyewitnesses and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
“A group of HTS opened fire on the vehicle removing part of the wall, and the Turks returned fire and also shelled the area,” one eyewitness on the border told AFP.
The Observatory reported “heavy exchanges of fire”, and said the fighting was continuing, but that the incident did not appear to mark the start of the operation Erdogan described on Saturday.
The campaign against HTS has been the subject of weeks of speculation, and is linked to plans to implement a so-called “de-escalation zone” in Idlib province and surrounding areas.
Rebel backer Turkey, along with Syrian regime allies Russia and Iran, earlier this year agreed a deal to implement four such ceasefire zones in the war-torn country as a prelude to talks on a peace deal.
The zone encompassing Idlib is the last one to go into effect, and its implementation has been held up by fierce opposition from HTS, which is dominated by al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate.