LOOMING 'BLOODBATH' IN IDLIB
Rivals on war footing
- Russia, Syria step up raids, shelling on rebel positions
- Ankara steps up arm shipments, orders rebels towards frontline
Turkey has stepped up arms supplies to Syrian rebels to help them stave off an expected offensive by the Syrian army and its Russian and Iran-backed allies in the northwest near the Turkish frontier, rebel sources told Reuters.
Senior rebel officials said Turkey had sent more military aid to rebels in and around the Idlib region since a summit meeting with Iran and Russia last week failed to agree a deal to avert a government offensive into the area.
Turkey, which is already hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees, is warning against such an attack, fearing it could force more Syrians over the border. President Tayyip Erdogan has warned of a humanitarian disaster and security risks for Turkey.
"They pledged complete Turkish military support for a long, protracted battle," a senior FSA commander who was privy to talks in recent days with senior Turkish officials said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak publicly.
The weapons, which have entered Syria in large quantities in recent days, include ammunition and GRAD rockets.
Turkish officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Turkish army has also deployed in the last week more troops and heavy weaponary to 12 positions in the Idlib region that observe a "de-escalation zone" agreed with Iran and Russia. The Turkish army has also sent troops into Syrian rebel-held territory further east, in an area north of Aleppo city.
With extensive Turkish support, efforts have been underway to organise FSA groups north of Aleppo into a unified force known as the "National Army" numbering some 30,000 fighters. Two rebel commanders said Turkey had ordered the bulk of this force to move towards the Idlib frontlines.
On the other hand, Russian and Syrian warplanes have stepped up air strikes on southern Idlib and adjacent areas of Hama province in an apparent prelude to a ground offensive. The Syrian army is building up troops near frontlines.
UN agencies and relief organisations have warned repeatedly that any major assault could spark one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria's war.
UN chief Antonio Guterres on Tuesday warned the Security Council that any full-blown offensive in Idlib risks triggering a "bloodbath".
Western governments have said Damascus might again resort to the use of chemical weapons while Moscow has accused rebels of staging one as a pretext for Western intervention.
On Tuesday, Russia claimed that Syrian rebels had begun working on film footage that would be presented to the world as the aftermath of an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian army.
The Idlib area forms part of an arc of territory in the northwest representing the last big area held by the opposition. Some three million people are living in Idlib, half of them Syrians who have fled from other parts of the country.