Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that a military operation in the northwestern Syrian region of Idlib was a "matter of time" if President Bashar al-Assad's forces fail to withdraw behind Turkish military positions — prompting criticism from Moscow.
The Syrian Army's offensive, backed by Russian air support, has triggered the biggest wave of refugees in the nine-year conflict.
Erdogan told lawmakers from his ruling AK Party on February 19 that talks with Russia, which has been the main backer of the Assad regime, were far from meeting Ankara's demands.
He said Turkey, which supports rebels who want to remove Assad from power, was determined to make Idlib a secure zone "no matter the cost," even as it continues its dialogue with Russia.
"Turkey has completed preparations for the implementation of its plan on Idlib, just like we did with previous operations. Frankly speaking, an operation in Idlib is only a matter of time. Turkey won’t leave Idlib to the [Assad] regime," Erdogan said. "We are counting down, we are making our final warnings."
In reaction to Erdogan's remarks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow was strongly opposed to such an operation, but that Russia and Ankara were staying in contact to try to prevent tensions in Idlib escalating further.
Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that no agreements have been reached during Russia-Turkey talks held in Moscow on February 17-18.
Meanwhile, Syrian aid workers have issued an urgent call for a cease-fire and international help for the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Idlib.
The Syrian NGO Alliance told a news conference in Istanbul that existing camps are overcrowded and civilians are forced to sleep in the open as more than 900,000 people had fled the violence.
The regime offensive has killed more than 400 civilians since it began in December, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.