Syria, Turkey battle for ground in Idlib as Moscow peace talks convene

The Syrian army and Turkey-backed opposition forces battled for territory in the province of Idlib as officials from Russia and Turkey prepared to sit down in Moscow to hammer out a deal to prevent further escalation of the conflict. 

Syrian government forces made significant territorial gains in the northwestern province in their push to take control of the last rebel-held enclave in the country, Syrian state-run media reported at the weekend.

President Bashar Assad’s army, aided by Russia, has now captured all towns and villages west of Aleppo, according to Syrian state-run television on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Islamist militants and other rebels backed by Turkey have launched a counter-offensive, according to Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency. 

Turkish and Russian officials will meet in Moscow on Monday to discuss a possible ceasefire in Idlib, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters during a briefing at the Munich Security Conference at the weekend.

“Aggression in Idlib must stop and a lasting ceasefire has to be achieved now," Çavuşoğlu said.

Russia and Turkey signed a deal in Sochi in September 2018, in which both countries agreed that Idlib would remain a war-free zone in Syria. But Russia accuses Turkey of reneging on the agreement by failing to contain and disarm Islamist militants that it labels as terrorists.

The offensive on Idlib, which has intensified since December, has caused more than 800,000 people to flee towards the Turkish border, the United Nations has said. Aid workers have warned that the humanitarian situation has become dire as refugee camps run at full capacity.

Iran, which also backs the Assad government, has called on Turkey to remain committed to the Sochi agreement, Russia's TASS news agency reported on Sunday.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said last week that Turkey was increasing its military presence in Idlib, which include observation posts now encircled by Syrian forces, to prevent Assad from barrel-bombing the remaining population.

Military confrontations between Turkey and Syria increased this month after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed in shelling. Turkey in turn has attacked positions of Assad’s army and says it has “neutralised” scores of Syrian military personnel.

The United States is backing Turkey, a NATO ally, in the conflict.

In a phone call on Sunday, President Donald Trump thanked Erdoğan for seeking to prevent a humanitarian disaster.

"President Trump conveyed the United States’ desire to see an end to Russia’s support for the Assad regime’s atrocities and for a political resolution to the Syrian conflict," the White House said in a readout of the call.