Turkey stepped up arms supplies to Syrian rebels to help stave off an expected offensive by the Syrian army and its Russian and Iran-backed allies near the Turkish frontier, rebel sources told Reuters.
Senior rebel officials said Turkey sent more military aid to rebels in and around Idlib region after a summit meeting with Iran and Russia last week failed to agree a deal to avert a government offensive .
Turkey, already hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees, is warning against an attack, fearing it could force more Syrians across the border. President Tayyip Erdogan warned of a humanitarian disaster and security risks for Turkey.
“They pledged total Turkish military support for a long, protracted battle,” a senior FSA commander 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.
“These arms supplies and munitions will allow the battle to extend and ensure supplies are not drained in a war of attrition,” the commander added.
A second rebel commander said: “They are getting new shipments of munitions — they don’t need more than munitions.”
“The Turks are making sure they have enough munitions to keep them going for a long while,” he added.
Turkish officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Idlib forms part of an arc of territory in the north-west representing the last major area held by the opposition.
Some three million people live in Idlib, half Syrians who fled from elsewhere in the country.
Russian and Syrian warplanes 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 massing troops near frontlines.
Turkey backed an array of Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels during the war that spiralled from an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. With decisive Iranian and Russian help, Assad has recovered most of Syria.
Idlib’s main towns and cities are under the sway of jihadists linked to al Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, though they are outnumbered by Turkey-backed FSA fighters grouped under “The National Front for Liberation”.
The Turkish army has deployed more troops and heavy weaponary to 12 positions in the Idlib region observing a “de-escalation zone” agreed with Iran and Russia. The Turkish army also sent troops into Syrian rebel-held territory further east, north of Aleppo.
With extensive Turkish support, efforts are 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 ordered the bulk of this force to move towards Idlib frontlines.
At the summit in Tehran, Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani agreed there could be no military solution to the conflict and it could only end through a negotiated political process.
Erdogan called for a truce, Putin said this would be pointless as it would not involve the Islamist militant groups Russia deems terrorists and Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.
Russia said Turkey has the job of separating Islamist militants from the moderate opposition in Idlib.
Rebel sources said Turkey pledged strong measures against the jihadists once Russia holds back the Syrian army from waging a major assault.
The jihadists have so far resisted calls by Ankara to dissolve or take an offer allowing fighters to join FSA factions after breaking ties with al Qaeda.