- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Turkey is tacitly siding with the United States against Russia and Iran in Syria by sending fresh weapons supplies to Syrian rebels to help them stave off an impending offensive by the Moscow- and Tehran-backed Assad regime.

Concerns have soared in Washington lately that Turkey, a NATO ally, has been aligning increasingly with Russia. But the latest indications are that Ankara sharply disagrees with Moscow and Tehran over the immediate way forward in Syria.

Syrian rebels have told Reuters News Agency that Turkey has sent more military aid to them since the Russian, Iranian and Turkish presidents failed to reach a deal during a summit in Tehran last week to avert an Assad regime offensive in Syria’s besieged Idlib province.

Turkey is currently hosting some 3.5 million refugees from Syria and has warned against a Syrian military attack on Idlib — the last major rebel holdout in Syria’s civil war — arguing it could trigger a fresh surge of refugees across the Turkish border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed concern the situation could create security risks inside Turkey. He’s also warned about the prospect for a fresh humanitarian crisis — echoing calls by President Trump for the Assad regime and its backers to tread carefully in Idlib.

“There cannot be a slaughter,” Mr. Trump said last week of the situation in Idlib, where rebel forces and millions of Syrian civilians have taken refuge over the past year. “If it’s a slaughter, the world is going to get very, very angry and the United States is going to get very angry, too.”

But the situation is complicated for Washington and Ankara because of unsavory actors and extremists holding ground in Idlib.

While the province is home to as many as 3 million people, including refugees driven from their homes elsewhere in Syria, it is also a known hotbed of jihadis. Syrian officials say one group, the Nusra Front, formerly the local branch of al Qaeda in Syria, is the central target of the impending offensive.

There were signs last week that the Russia- and Iran-backed offensive on Idlib was already underway: The Russian Defense Ministry said four of its jets had bombed a weapons depot and launch pad for drones used by jihadis. Moscow accuses the militants of deploying the drones to target Russian military bases in Syria.

U.S. and Turkish officials, meanwhile, draw a distinction between the jihadis in Idlib and factions of the the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel group seeking the ouster of the Assad regime, which perpetuated the civil war seven years ago in Syria by using military force to crush the spread of pro-democracy demonstrations there.

The Reuters report on Wednesday quoted a senior FSA commander as saying Turkey has now pledged “complete Turkish military support for a long, protracted battle” in Idlib. The commander, who was privy to talks in recent days with senior Turkish officials spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Reuters said Turkish weapons entering 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 our supplies are not drained in a war of attrition,” the FSA commander told the news agency.

In a vexing twist to the Syria developments, Russian officials claim rebels in Idlib are preparing to stage a fake chemical attack they intend to blame on the Syrian government, with the goal of triggering a retaliatory strike by the United States.

Mr. Trump has ordered two series of air strikes against Syrian forces in the past 18 months in response to what Washington and its allies say was the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime — not rebels — against innocent civilians.

Washington has said it is prepared to strike again if the regime deploys chemical weapons in Idlib, but has not explicitly said it would intervene to stop a government offensive.

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