Smoke rises during the bombing of the village of Sarmin, near Idlib, Syria, by government forces on Tuesday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Syria to move away from Turkish observation posts in Idlib or face retaliation. Photo by Yahya Nemah/EPA-EFE
Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday warned Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to back away from Turkish observation posts in the rebel-held northern Syrian province of Idlib.
Speaking to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party in Parliament, Erdogan said that if Assad doesn't pull back troops now confronting anti-regime rebels and Turkish observers along the province's eastern frontier by the end of this month, Turkey itself would "make it happen."
The tough comments came two days after seven Turkish soldiers and a civilian contractor were killed and 13 others injured during a Syrian government attack targeting rebels in Idlib.
The incident came after weeks of intensive aerial bombardment and an intense ground offensive by regime forces and their Russian allies which has sent at least 500,000 refugees fleeing into the area, according to the United Nations.
"Nothing will be the same after the Assad regime attack in Idlib which killed Turkish soldiers," Erdogan said, warning that "if the Syrian regime will not retreat from Turkish observation posts in Idlib in February, Turkey itself will be obliged to make this happen."
"Turkey's air and land forces will move freely in all operation areas [in Syria] and in Idlib, and they will conduct operations if needed," he said.
The Turkish leader also called on Russia to rein in Assad's moves along the Idlib frontier, saying he expected Moscow to understand his country's priorities.
Turkey accuses the Assad regime of repeatedly violating cease-fire agreements and targeting civilians in Idlib, where 4 million Syrian refugees had already fled to avoid the regime's nine-year effort to defeat rebel forces.
As Syria's last bastion of rebel-held territory, Assad has vowed to retake the 2,300-square-mile area along the Turkish border.