DAMASCUS - 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.
Syrian forces backed by air strikes had on Wednesday encircled and entered Saraqeb, 15 km 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 the Assad regime seeks to fully control in 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 confirmed that government forces came under shelling from Turkish observation posts in the area. Turkey has set up four military posts in northwestern Syria to prevent Syrian government forces from marching deeper into Idlib, Syria's Foreign Ministry said, adding that Turkish troops have “flagrantly violated” Syria's border and deployed in several areas, including the villages of Binnish, Taftanaz and Maaret Musreen.
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 in the past two weeks, risking a full-blown military confrontation with Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to drive back the Syrian forces.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Ankara expected Russia to immediately stop the attacks by its Syrian government ally. A rare confrontation between Turkey and Syria on Monday killed seven Turkish soldiers and a Turkish civilian member of the military, as well as 13 Syrian soldiers.
"We conveyed our determination to our Russian counterparts," Cavusoglu said, adding that Ankara was determined to stem the "humanitarian drama" in Idlib which Turkey says has displaced nearly 1 million people.
Turkish leaders have repeatedly called on Russia to “rein in” Syrian government forces, a demand to which Moscow has responded by expressing concerns over growing “terrorist” activity in Idlib.
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 reiterated that both Russia and Turkey each have “their own sets of concerns" in northern Syria, and the concentration of insurgent groups in Idlib and their “continuing activity” was Russia's main issue.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also announced that Russian soldiers were killed in militant attacks alongside Turkish servicemen, without saying when the incident occurred. The ministry blamed “terrorists” for the deaths, saying that the attacks in Idlib province - dominated by jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham - intensified in January.
“Russian and Turkish military specialists died tragically,” the statement said, without specifying when and how many Russian soldiers were killed. It was the first confirmation from Moscow of casualties in the current round of fighting.
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.
Meanwhile, Cavusoglu said a delegation from Russia would arrive in Turkey soon for talks on the situation in Idlib following the attack on Turkish soldiers. He said a follow-up meeting between Erdogan and Putin could also take place "if there is a need."
Speaking to Turkish reporters during a visit to Azerbaijan, Cavusoglu also renewed the call for Russia to stop "increased" Syrian attacks in Idlib.
Idlib province is home to some 3 million people, many of them displaced from other parts of Syria in earlier bouts of violence.
The battle for Idlib marks a crucial stage of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians, made millions refugees in their own country or overseas, and fractured the wider Middle East since it broke out amid the Arab Spring in 2011.
The forces arrayed against Assad, Syria's ruler for nearly 20 years, have failed to dislodge him but he now presides over a devastated country.
The escalation in Idlib also comes at a time of heightened tension between the United States and Iran, Assad's other main military ally, after the killing last month in a US strike of an Iranian general who was the architect of Tehran's military operations in the region and an important figure in Syria's war.
Russian and Iranian support has helped Assad win back nearly all the territory lost to rebels. The threat of direct confrontation between arch-enemies Israel and Iran has also long simmered in Syria, where the Iranian military has built a presence early in the civil war.
Early on Thursday, Syrian air defences intercepted Israeli missiles over Damascus that were fired at military targets in southern Syria including near the capital, the Syrian defence ministry said.
The pre-dawn attacks by Israeli warplanes were launched in two waves, one near Damascus and another near Deraa and Quneitra provinces, it said. The Syrian air defences downed a large number of missiles but the attacks still caused material damage and casualties, it said.
The Observatory said the strikes killed 23 Syrian and non-Syrian fighters aligned with Assad. The toll included three Iranians and seven Tehran-backed foreign fighters near Kisweh south of the capital. Eight Syrian air defence forces lost their lives west of the capital, while five Syrian members of pro-Iran group were killed in Deraa province.
Israel has repeatedly bombed Iranian-backed militia targets in Syria, saying its goal was to end Tehran's military presence there.