Syria’s warring sides face off in town east of Idlib city

FILE PHOTO: A view of trucks carrying belongings of displaced Syrians, is pictured in the town of Sarmada in Idlib province, Syria, January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/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. This was the latest 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 air strikes, has caused an exodus of civilians towards Turkey’s border. This increased in the past two weeks and the status is at a level which is 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 1 million people. 

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 organised if needed.

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