Syrian Troops Attempt to Retake Key Northwestern Town From Rebel Forces

The attempt comes after escalating and direct clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces that could signal a new stage of the war

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A Turkish military convoy moves in the east of Idlib, Syria, February 28, 2020.
A Turkish military convoy moves in the east of Idlib, Syria, February 28, 2020.Credit: AP

Syrian government forces battled to recapture a strategic rebel-held town in Idlib province on Monday and a Turkish official said Ankara would continue to strike President Bashar al-Assad's troops after escalating its military operations at the weekend.

Syrian state television broadcast live footage from inside Saraqeb, which lies on the country's main north-south highway, and said it was under government control.

Rebels denied the report, saying they still held the town despite heavy shelling.Syrian government forces and their allies retook early Monday a key northwestern town days after losing it to rebel forces, pro-government media and an opposition war monitor said.Saraqeb has already changed hands twice in less than a month, reflecting its importance both as a gateway to the government-controlled northern city of Aleppo and to the rebel-held Idlib city to the west.

Rebels said Turkish drones had been striking Syrian army positions on the Saraqeb frontline, hitting at least two rocket launchers. Syrian activists said the strikes had killed more than 90 Syrian government forces and allied fighters. Turkey has lost 54 soldiers in February, including 33 killed Thursday in a single airstrike.

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Turkey, which has backed rebels fighting Assad for much of Syria's nine-year conflict, stepped up its intervention in recent days in response to the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib.

Outraged, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his country’s European borders were open Saturday for thousands of migrants and refugees as he sought to pressure Europe to help Turkey handle the fallout from the war in Syria.

On Sunday it shot down two Syrian planes in Idlib and struck at least one military airport in Aleppo province, taking the battle deep into territory controlled by forces loyal to Assad.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces had also destroyed eight helicopters, scores of tanks and five air defence systems. "All (Syrian) attacks have been retaliated by the Turkish Armed Forces in the heaviest manner without hesitation and will continue to be retaliated," state news agency Anadolu quoted him as saying.

President Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, whose support for Assad turned the tide of the war five years ago, are due to meet in Russia on Thursday to seek agreement on Idlib.

Turkey has insisted that it seeks no conflict with Moscow, but its barrage of strikes on the Russian-backed forces around Idlib have raised the risk of a direct confrontation. "A solution is expected to emerge from the talks but attacks and attempts which the (Syrian) regime carries out in this period will not go unanswered," a senior Turkish security official told Reuters.

Backed by Turkish shelling and drone strikes, rebels say they have now retaken several villages that they lost last week in the Syrian government offensive.

The fighting has also sparked one of the war's worst humanitarian crisis, with almost one million Syrian civilians fleeing toward the sealed Turkish border.

The new gains at Saraqeb on the ground also bring the last segment of a highway that links the capital Damascus and the major northern city of Aleppo under government control. The highway was reopened late last month before insurgents seized Saraqeb, which sits on the highway, last week.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said Syrian troops and their allies regained control of Saraqeb after fighting with al-Qaida-linked militants.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops captured the town under the cover of airstrikes by the Russian air force.

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