Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday threatened to launch a military operation in Syria by the end of this month if Russian-backed government forces in the country fail to withdraw troops behind a ceasefire line agreed upon in the 2018 Sochi accord between Ankara and Moscow.
Thousands of Turkish soldiers, as well as hundreds of tanks, have already been sent in as reinforcements at security posts in the de-escalation zone in the Idlib province, BBC reported. Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups have been fighting against a heavy offensive from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military since December.
"An operation in Idlib is imminent," Erdogan told legislators from his ruling AK Party in Parliament on Wednesday. "We are counting down, we are making our final warnings.”
Erdogan said continuing talks with Russia have so far failed to meet a satisfactory result.
Supported by Russian warplanes and special forces, the Syrian Armed Forces have been gaining ground in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Two separate attacks carried out by the Syrian military killed 13 Turkish military personnel over the last two weeks, sparking outrage with Ankara, Al Jazeera reported.
"We are making our final warnings," Erdogan continued. "We did not reach the desired results in our talks [with Russia]. The talks will continue, but it is true that we are far from meeting our demands at the table."
"Turkey has made every preparation to carry out its own operational plans. I say that we can come at any point. In other words, the Idlib offensive is only a matter of time," he added.
A Turkish delegation ended two days of talks with Russian officials in Moscow, and Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesman, said both sides agreed to meet again. The U.N. human rights chief urged Syrian government forces and their allies to allow safe corridors in conflict areas in northwestern Syria, where a military offensive has unleashed a massive wave of fleeing civilians in one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the nine-year civil war.
More than 900,000 civilians, including half a million children, have been displaced since Dec. 1 as the Syrian military continues its offensive toward the Turkish border, BBC reported. Already home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, Turkey fears a new influx of people may overwhelm its borders which it has kept sealed in recent years.
Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov responded to Erdogan’s remarks, calling a Turkish military operation in Syria the “worst-case scenario.”
"If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian Republic and armed forces of the Syrian republic this would, of course, be the worst scenario," he said.
The U.N. Human Rights Office has recorded 298 civilian deaths in Idlib and Aleppo, where the government offensive has been concentrated, since Jan. 1. Ninety-three percent of those deaths were caused by the Syrian government and its allies. In addition, 10 medical facilities and 19 educational facilities were either directly hit or affected by nearby strikes.
Turkey has restarted joint patrols with the Russian military in northeastern Syria after a two-week hiatus due to the escalation in Idlib, the Russian military said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.