Turkey’s government sent thousands of soldiers into Syria as Russia stepped up airstrikes in the northwest of the country.
The deployment comes two days before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia.
Russian jets bombed villages near the city of Afrin on Sunday, Reuters reported citing local sources. The air strikes on towns and villages held by Turkish-backed rebels have been escalating over the past week, it said.
The Russian air campaign has widened from Jabal al Zawya in the Idlib province further northwest in to Afrin, which is located near the Turkish border and was once under full Kurdish control. There was also shelling from Syrian army outposts aided by Iranian-backed militias, Reuters said.
“Russia’s escalation has intensified this week and begun from Idlib province and now stretches to areas in northern Aleppo province along the border,” said Major Youssef Hamoud, spokesman for the National Army, the main Turkish-backed rebel force, according to Reuters.
Turkey has deployed tens of thousands of troops into Syria over the past five years to battle Kurdish militants allied with the United States in the war against Islamic State (ISIS). It is working with Syrian opposition Islamist groups that Russia and Damascus label as terrorists. It has also sought to create safe havens in Syria’s northwest for the return of refugees.
Turkish soldiers are stationed in the region to protect the local population and support counterterrorism groups, its government says. Despite the military escalation, Ankara says it hopes to find a political solution with Russia to ensure ceasefires are upheld and to stop a further influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey.