Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday a Turkish military operation to push back a Syrian government offensive against rebel strongholds in northwest Syria was now “a matter of time” after talks with Russia failed to halt the assault.
Turkish troops have already massed inside Syria ready to act and more were heading to the border area.
The Kremlin, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said a confrontation between Turkish and Syrian forces would be a “worst-case scenario” and Russia would keep working to prevent the situation from worsening.
Syrian troops supported by Russian warplanes and special forces have been battling since December to eradicate the last rebel bastions in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in what could be one of the final chapters of the nine-year-old civil war.
Nearly one million civilians have fled from air strikes and artillery barrages toward the frontier, overwhelming relief agencies and alarming Turkey, which is struggling to cope with the 3.6 million Syrian refugees already camped inside its borders.
Speaking to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party on Wednesday, Erdogan said Turkey was determined to make Idlib a secure zone even while talks with Moscow continued. Several rounds of diplomacy had failed to reach an agreement so far, he said.
“We are entering the last days for the regime to stop its hostility in Idlib. We are making our final warnings,” said Erdogan, whose country has the second-largest army in NATO.
“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.”
The Turkish leader on Saturday appeared to move forward the end-of-February deadline for a Syrian withdrawal from Idlib that he had previously stated.