Syria’s Warring Sides Face Off in Town East of Idlib City

BEIRUT (Reuters) -
Turkish and Russian military vehicles return following a joint patrol in northeast Syria, as they are pictured from near the Turkish border town of Kiziltepe in Mardin Province, Turkey. (Reuters/Kemal Aslan/File Photo)

Syrian government forces battled rebels and weathered Turkish artillery barrages on Thursday as they tried to seize Saraqeb town in northwestern Idlib Province in a new push to recapture the last rebel stronghold, witnesses and a war monitor said.

President Bashar al-Assad’s swift military advance through Idlib Province, backed by Russian airstrikes, has caused an exodus of civilians towards Turkey’s border in the past two weeks, risking a military confrontation with Turkey, whose leader has threatened to drive back the Syrian forces.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Ankara expected Russia to immediately stop the government attacks, which killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday and prompted Turkish forces to strike back.

“We conveyed our determination to our Russian counterparts,” he said, adding that Ankara was determined to stem the “humanitarian drama” in Idlib, which Turkey says has displaced nearly one million people.

Syrian forces backed by airstrikes on Wednesday had encircled and entered Saraqeb, 9 miles east of Idlib city, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had said in a report corroborated by witnesses.

The town lies at the junction of two main roads that Assad seeks to fully control under the campaign to regain Idlib Province, the last rebel bastion in the nearly nine-year-long civil war.

Rebel fighters “managed to push back government forces from most of Saraqeb in an attack from the northern part of the town that coincided with Turkish shelling against advancing government forces,” the Observatory said.

Witnesses said government forces came under shelling from Turkish observation posts in the area.

The fighting, taking place despite a Jan. 12 ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia, disrupted a fragile cooperation between the two countries that back opposing sides in the conflict, raising concerns over future collaboration.

The Kremlin said on Thursday that militants in Turkey’s “zone of responsibility” in Idlib Province were continuing to attack Syrian government forces and Russian military infrastructure.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were no plans currently for President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to meet to reduce tensions in Idlib but that such a meeting could be quickly organized if needed.

Russia also said some of its troops had been killed in the terror attacks – its first confirmation of casualties in the current round of fighting.