Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday that pro-Ankara Syrian rebels were staging a new military operation in Syria's northwestern Idlib province with the aim of pushing out jihadists who control the region.
The move comes as Turkey along with Russia and Iran prepare to set up a so-called "de-escalation" zone in Idlib in line with accords in peace talks in Astana aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
Erdogan said the operation, which has not yet seen Turkish troops cross the border into Syria, was being conducted in coordination with Russia.
"We are taking new steps to ensure security in Idlib. Today, a very serious operation is ongoing in Idlib and this will continue," Erdogan said in a televised speech in the western city of Afyon.
Erdogan said many Syrians had fled to Idlib from neighbouring Aleppo province, which was rocked by heavy fighting last year, and Turkey was not going to let them down.
- 'No terror corridor' -
Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate, which ousted more moderate rebels in recent months
HTS is not party to a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran for the safe zone in the province, one of four such "de-escalation" zones across Syria.
Ousting HTS forces from the area will be needed to allow the arrival of Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces to implement a de-escalation zone.
"We will absolutely not allow the creation of a terror corridor along our borders," said Erdogan.
He later told reporters the operation was led by Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and that the Turkish army was "not yet" operating inside Syria.
State-run Anadolu news agency said there was a major build up of commando units and military vehicles around the town of Reyhanli bordering Idlib close to the Cilvegozu border crossing.
The Hurriyet daily said ultimately Turkey would ensure security in Idlib city and Russia in the surrounding area.
Appearing to confirm this, Erdogan said: "Idlib is a region where we will provide protection in the inside and Russia on the outside."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said Turkish army cranes had begun removing sections of the security wall Turkey has built on the border in preparation for an incursion. It said the operation was yet to formally begin.
- 'Taking measures' -
Turkey earlier this year wrapped up its months-long Euphrates Shield operation against jihadists and Kurdish militia in Aleppo province that involved both the Turkish army and Syrian rebels.
Asked whether the Idlib operation would be similar to Euphrates Shield, Erdogan replied: "When you enter the boxing ring you don't count your punches."
A rebel commander participating in the operation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP in Beirut that "all the rebel groups" who took part in Euphrates Shield are participating in the latest operation.
"The fighters number in the thousands and there are Turkish soldiers participating," he added, without giving further details. "The goal of the operation is to liberate Idlib fully from Tahrir al-Sham."
- Russia coordination -
The move comes a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with Erdogan in Ankara, with both sides agreeing to push for the Idlib de-escalation zone.
Afer those talks Putin declared the right conditions now existed to end the over six-year civil war that has killed an estimated 330,000 people since 2011.
The Syrian Observatory in the last week has repeatedly accused Syria and Russia of carrying out deadly air strikes in Idlib province with heavy civilian losses.
The Russian defence ministry said Saturday some 120 Islamic State group fighters and 60 foreign mercenaries were killed in a series of Russian air strikes in Syria over the past 24 hours.
Despite being on opposite sides of the conflict, Russia and Turkey have been working together intensely since a 2016 reconciliation deal ended a crisis caused by the shooting down of a Russian war plane over Syria.
Russia, along with Iran, is the key backer of President Bashar al-Assad and Moscow's military intervention inside Syria is widely seen as tipping the balance in the conflict. Turkey, however, has backed rebels seeking Assad's ouster.
Commenting on the coordination with Russia, Erdogan said: "Relations with the regime is something looked after by Russia, and we have taken measures in other areas."