Turkey, Russia spar for advantage in Idlib ahead of March 5 meeting

Russia has sent military police units to consolidate Saraqeb in the east of Syria’s Idlib province after Syrian government forces recaptured parts of the strategically important town four days after losing it to Turkish-backed rebels.

The Syrian government forces advanced under Russian air support, and the deployment of Russian soldiers in Saraqeb places them within three miles of Turkish outposts near Neirab. Still, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has underlined his hope that the risk of a confrontation with Turkey would be minimised “thanks to the close contact between the countries’ militaries.”

The Russians are there to shield the crucial town and ranking officers of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) from attacks by Turkish armed drones that wreaked havoc on Syrian government forces in reprisals for the bombardment that killed at least 36 Turkish soldiers last week.

But heavy fighting has continued around the town, and both sides have suffered heavy casualties. Some 75 rebel and jihadist fighters and at least 40 Syrian government and loyalists have been killed in Idlib in the last 24 hours, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Located next to an intersection linking the M4 and M5 highways, control of Saraqeb is crucial in the battle over the last province in the country that has largely remained under opposition control.

Reports say Turkey has deployed some 20,000 soldiers as well as tanks and artillery to Idlib since the Syrian government and loyalist militias ramped up an offensive to capture Idlib this year.

The Russian-backed onslaught drove the rebel frontline far behind the boundaries demarcated in a 2018 deal signed by Russia and Turkey to de-escalate the conflict, leaving Turkish observation points surrounded. Meanwhile, Russian jets and Syrian government forces bombarded civilian areas, triggering a huge new wave of migration, which by the United Nations’ estimate drove 900,000 people toward Turkey’s border.

Turkey’s retaliatory strikes over the weekend came in response to the killing of Turkish soldiers, but the massive damage dealt to the SAA sparked an opposition fightback, with rebels retaking villages lost this year.

The Turkish side will wish to drive forward as far as possible toward four of its dozen observation points that remain stranded near the province’s southeastern border before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meets Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

A sufficient drive forward would help Turkey achieve its goal at the meeting of negotiating an updated version of the 2018 Sochi agreement. Failing that, a Turkish academic from the government-linked SETA think tank said, Turkey is ready to launch a comprehensive ground operation to drive back the SAA.

In the meantime, Turkey has continued making the most of its huge technical advantage over the Syrian forces, downing another warplane on Tuesday to match the two Su-24 jets it shot down last weekend.

Turkish-backed rebel groups continued fighting to recapture the town of Kafranbel in southern Idlib. A social media account for one of those groups, the National Front for Liberation, reported that they had destroyed an SAA tank in the outskirts of the town.

Turkish artillery also let loose from positions in north Idlib to strike Syrian government targets in the neighbouring Aleppo province, the Aleppo Media Centre said.

But by Tuesday afternoon, Syrian journalist Mohamed Rasheed said artillery fire from the SAA had hit a Turkish position in Nayrab, west of Saraqeb, injuring several Turkish soldiers.


© Ahval English

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