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  • Turkish President Erdogan speaks during a ceremony in Ankara.

    Turkish President Erdogan speaks during a ceremony in Ankara. | Photo: Reuters

Published 10 January 2019

The Syrian war has been ongoing for the last eight years. It began amid region-wide protests in the Arab Spring in 2011.

A Turkish military operation against the Kurdish People´s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Ankara has pledged to carry out in northern Syria, is not dependent on a United States withdrawal of troops from the region, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday.

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In an interview with broadcaster NTV, Cavusoglu said it was unrealistic to expect that the United States will fully collect weapons it gave to its YPG ally, which Ankara views as a terrorist group.

“If the [pullout] is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision,” Cavusoglu said, referring to Turkey's threat to launch an attack into the Kurdish-controlled northern area of Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that the removal of troops from Syria will not be thwarted by Turkish threats against Washington's Kurdish allies. Pompeo promised that the Kurds would still be protected.

Pompeo was given the task of explaining U.S. policy in the region after President Donald Trump's announcement of removing 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, which rattled allies and came as a shock to top U.S. officials. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis quit over the decision.

U.S. foreign policy aside, things have not quieted down in Syria. After nine days of battle with Turkey-backed groups, blacklisted jihadist fighters tightened their grip over the country’s last major rebel-held region Thursday, jeopardizing a deal to prevent a massive army assault in the area.

  A girl stands amidst the rubble of damaged buildings in the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab, Syria, Feb. 28, 2017. | Source: Reuters
 

The northwest of Syria, near the Turkish border, is the last part of the country still in the hands of fighters seeking to topple President Bashar Assad, but control has been divided between jihadist factions and rebel groups backed by Turkey.

On Thursday, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group listed as terrorists by the United States, Turkey and others, forced factions from the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) to accept a peace deal recognizing civilian control by an HTS-backed administration.

The success of the jihadists in recent days has raised doubt over the future of a deal agreed to in September between Turkey and the Assad government's main ally Russia to avert an army assault. The agreement requires banned jihadist groups to be expelled from a frontline buffer zone.

Much of the Idlib enclave is now controlled by HTS, which is headed by a former Syrian offshoot of al Qaeda.

Under Thursday's agreement, FSA groups accepted civilian control of some towns and villages by a body known as the Salvation Government which runs basic services in the city of Idlib and many towns that fall under HTS influence.

Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu acknowledged Thursday that it was not "so easy" to maintain the deal with Russia, but said that so far it was being "implemented successfully."

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"The radical groups have mounted an attack against the moderate opposition. And of course we are taking the necessary precautions," Cavusoglu told NTV.

A rebel official close to Turkey's intelligence service said that Ankara had played a key role in preventing the fighting from spreading further by pressuring rebels to accept a deal.

HTS's stronghold over the area has raised fears among rebels and residents in the densely populated province that Russian air strikes halted last year could resume.

Religious extremists have allowed Turkish troops to deploy along the front lines as the Russia-Turkey deal demanded, but have not withdrawn from the area themselves.

"The complete control of (HTS) will be a pretext for the regime and the Russians to end the Idlib deal, and this is the coming danger," said Major Youssef Hamoud, spokesperson for a Turkish-backed alliance of rebels called the National Army.

Some factions who fought against the religious extremists under a different banner have now fled to an area under greater Turkish influence nearby.

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