Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has slammed his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “thief” for attacking his country and reiterated a pledge to retake all areas lost by his government during the civil war, state media reported.
He made the remarks during a rare visit to the front lines of the war, in an area in the northwestern Idlib province recently retaken by Syrian government forces from Turkey-backed rebels.
Syrian state media showed on Tuesday images of al-Assad standing among Syrian soldiers in what the report said was the strategic southern Idlib territory of Hobeit in the embattled northwestern region.
Al-Assad was seen surrounded by army commanders and soldiers in Hobeit, which the army captured in August as part of a Russian-led offensive to capture Idlib and its surroundings.
“Erdogan is a thief and is now stealing our land,” state media quoted al-Assad as saying. The Turkish president “robbed factories, wheat and fuel and is today stealing territory”, he said in an apparent reference to Turkey’s cross-border operations into Syria in the last few years.
Earlier this month, Turkey began its third cross-border assault against the Syrian Kurdish fighters in Syria‘s northeast with the help of allied rebel forces, who control swaths of territory north of Idlib.
With Syria’s civil war now in its eighth year, capturing the Idlib area would be an important victory for al-Assad, who has steadily recovered control of areas under rebel control with Russian and Iranian support.
“We said and continue to say that the Idlib battle is the core to decisively end chaos and terrorism in all of Syria,” al-Assad was quoted as saying.
Idlib enjoyed a lull in air raids after Damascus and its ally Moscow declared a ceasefire on August 31 following five months of bombing – which the United Nations said killed hundreds of people.
Just before the ceasefire, the Syrian offensive, aided by Iranian-backed fighters, made its most significant advance by seizing the strategic city of Khan Sheikhoun. The campaign also expanded state control of parts of a highway that stretches from the capital Damascus to the city of Aleppo.
Turkey and Russia had brokered a de-escalation zone deal in 2017 to curb fighting in Idlib.
According to the deal, Ankara promised that the rebels in control of the area, who Russia and Syria call “terrorists,” would lay down their arms and leave the area.
Damascus and Moscow say this has not happened since the deal was struck.
Hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by the fighting in the northwest have fled towards the Turkish border.
The violence in Idlib province and a strip of nearby Hama has marked the biggest military escalation between al-Assad and his enemies since last summer.
Turkey has observation points inside Idlib, negotiated with Russia, to monitor a ceasefire there between the government and opposition fighters and rebel groups around the region.
Assad’s forces now control around 60 percent of the country and the president has repeatedly pledged to return all of it to his control, including Idlib.
The Syrian war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.