Turkish troops set to reinforce positions below the M4 highway.
Turkey is set to withdraw from several observation posts in the Syrian province of Idlib, which have been surrounded by Syrian regime forces since last year, according to some unconfirmed.
The observation points, twelve in total, were initially set up after a 2017 ceasefire agreement between the Assad regime and the opposition, overseen by Russia and Turkey.
A security source speaking to TRT World said, “I think these withdrawals are clearly related to the Turkish expectation of a new military operation by the Assad regime supported by Russia and Iran.”
“In case of a military escalation in Idlib, the weakest point for Turkey are these observation points because they are way behind the front line. The geographic distance is a threat for Turkey,” added the source, who wanted to remain anonymous.
Earlier in October, Turkey started sending military reinforcements to Idlib, in particular south of the strategic M4 highway, as a means of ensuring that the Assad regime does not attack opposition-held territory.
Russia, however, allowed the Assad regime to amass more troops to the south of the last opposition-held territory, which also has more than 4 million internally displaced Syrians.
“The Turkish soldiers there could become a target for the Assad regime in case of a major escalation,” said the source familiar with the situation, adding that “withdrawing them from the checkpoints ensures the safety of the Turkish soldiers. It also shows that Turkey does not trust Russia to safeguard the observation points.”
Turkey will begin withdrawing from approximately four checkpoints, which include Shir Maghar, Morek, Tal Touqan and Sheik Aqil.
The latest moves in Idlib, however, cannot be separated from the wider dynamics in the Russian-Turkish relationship, which include the unfolding conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Russia is backing Armenia which has been occupying Azerbaijan's land for almost 30 years. The ongoing conflict has been the most serious escalation since a four-day flare-up in 2016, although there have been skirmishes between the two sides over the years.
More recently, the situation at the observation posts became increasingly challenging for Turkey. The Assad regime organised demonstrations seeking to storm Turkish outposts.
Footage online shows that the dismantling and evacuations in four of the outposts have begun.
Turkey, in the past, has resisted withdrawing from the posts. However, according to new reports, it is now focusing on consolidating ceasefire lines in Idlib and no longer sees military value in holding those outposts.
The latest flare-up in Idlib earlier this year saw opposition groups backed by Turkey fighting the Assad regime’s advances which managed to capture another crucial highway known as the M5 to the east of Idlib.
Turkey has deployed between 10,000 and 15,000 troops in the northwest of Idlib, and the latest moves are an indication that outposts are no longer sufficient in warding off the Assad regime - a more muscular approach to the province is warranted.
Even more concerning, is that any renewed conflict could see millions of refugees fleeing to Turkey, despite it already being home to the largest refugee population of 3.6 million Syrians in several Turkish cities.