Turkish strikes leave battle for crucial Syrian highway wide open

Syrian government forces launched a counterattack on Saraqeb in the western province of Idlib, regaining ground in the area days after rebels took the strategically important town with support from Turkey.

Rebel forces beat back the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and allied militias under an onslaught of Turkish drone and artillery strikes that took out scores of armoured units as well as two fighter jets in reprisal for bombardment that killed dozens of Turkish soldiers last Thursday.

Saraqeb, which lies in the east of Idlib province near an intersection of the strategically crucial M4 and M5 highways, fell to rebels last week as the withering Turkish strikes forced Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces onto the back foot.

But reinforcements piled into the area on Monday, with some soldiers reportedly brought in ambulances to avoid drone strikes.

The resumption of air strikes by Assad’s Russian allies helped the government forces’ advance into Saraqeb, and by midday on Monday pro-Assad media outlets reported that government forces had shot down three Turkish drones and entered the town centre.

But the SAA met fierce resistance as opposition and jihadist factions brought in reinforcements in massive numbers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Meanwhile, Turkish drones continued pounding targets in the Idlib countryside, according to the SOHR’s report.

Among the casualties on the Syrian government side was Col. Hashem al-Hadi, the commander of the Saraqeb campaign, who was killed in a Turkish drone strike, said London-based Syrian journalist Mousa Alomar.

As fighting raged in the eastern part of Idlib province, rebel forces launched their own counterattack in Kafranbel, a small town that was known as a stronghold of the Syrian revolution before Assad’s forces captured it last week.

On Sunday the rebels drove forward with armoured units to capture Hazzarin, a village west of Kafranbel, pushing forward to forests outside Kafranbel the next day.

Reports from the area said the rebels had taken out several SAA tanks around the town, but fighting remained fierce and government forces reportedly pushed back into Hazzarin on Monday.

Turkish support has been vital for the rebels in Idlib, where up to last week government forces’ advance had continued virtually unchecked for months, displacing civilians toward the border and stranding Turkish soldiers in observation posts set up in a September 2018 deal with Russia to create a de-escalation zone around the province.

The absence of Russian fighter jets over the weekend left the SAA forces vulnerable and allowed rebels to recapture large parts of the areas they lost. But with Russian fighters circling the province again and a warning delivered to Turkey to stay out of the airspace on Monday, the rebels will be up against stiffer opposition going forward.

Besides the strategic importance of Saraqeb, reclaiming Kafranbel would be a significant boost for opposition morale. The town was a hub for Syrians displaced from other parts of the country by government violence, and became famous during the early days of the Syrian revolution for the banners held by activists during demonstrations.

Turkey’s intervention in Idlib may coincided with a revival of that revolutionary spirit, as demonstrations in support of the rebels broke out in Deraa, the southern province where the protests that sparked the revolution first broke out in 2011.

The protests came amid renewed clashes between locals and security forces that have left several dead and brought the province “to the brink of a second revolution,” according to a local official quoted by Syria Direct.

© Ahval English