Allies desert Syria jihadists before Turkey-backed battle

Turkish forces gather in advance of a move into northern Syria

Earlier in the day, Turkish howitzers on the border fired around five shots in support of allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters who had entered Idlib, which is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaida affiliate that changed its name a year ago from the Nusra Front.

"There's a serious operation in Syria's Idlib today and it will continue", Erdogan said in a speech to his AK Party in the western city of Afyon. "We have to extend our hand to them, and that is the step that was taken and will continue", Erdogan said.

The spokesman noted that the establishment of a de-escalation zone in rebel-held Idlib Province would start in the coming days. On Sunday morning, HTS jihadists opened fire on Turkish forces removing part of a wall along the border between Turkey and Idlib, eyewitnesses and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

Rebels of the FSA rode on trucks through Turkey and crossed the Syrian border on Saturday, while Turkish troops fully equipped with tanks and other weapons assembled at the border, awaiting orders to enter Syria.

Tahrir Al Sham, which is listed by the United States and others as a "terrorist" group, counts an estimated 10,000 fighters among its ranks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

And it has seen its ranks rapidly depleted in advance of the expected Turkish operation, with its coalition now effectively reduced back down to Fateh Al Sham.

Turkey's NTV, a private television station, reported an exchange of fire at the border area, quoting "military sources".

In the lead up to the operation, Turkey agreed to set up a so-called de-escalation zone in Idlib in a deal with Iran and Russian Federation.

Turkey has sent military reinforcements to its southern border with Syria to commence what it called a "a serious operation" in Idlib.

Security in Idlib will be provided by Turkey with Russia, Erdogan said Saturday, without elaborating further.

"It is a very risky area - Turkey may face a backlash from moderate rebels if it can't deliver humanitarian services" and may also "come under pressure" from Russian Federation and Iran to eliminate militants, he said.

The intermittent clashes were reported near the town of Kafr-Lusin on the border in the northern countryside of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, Xinhua cited local media as reporting. Turkey has supported and backed rebels that seek the toppling of Assad.

The state-run Anadolu news agency identified the consulate employee as a male Turkish citizen and said he was arrested late on Wednesday on charges of espionage and attempts to damage the constitutional order and Turkey's government.

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