Putin says Russia supports Syrian army’s efforts in Idlib

This story has been updated to include later developments as well as statements by Russian President Putin and the Turkish Defence Ministry.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday said the terrorist-controlled area of Syria's northwest province of Idlib had increased since the Sochi summit, and that militants there posed a great threat, Russian state-funded news site Sputnik Turkey reported.

“We support the Syrian army’s efforts for local operations to thwart the terrorist threats,” said Putin, referring to the militants in Idlib.

Before the 2018 Sochi deal, when Turkey committed to neutralise the jihadist terrorist groups in Idlib as part of a joint effort to demilitarise the area, 50 per cent of Idlib was under terrorist control, but the ratio has increased to 90 per cent over time, the Russian president said and added that the threat went beyond territorial control as Russia has observed that militants in Idlib have been moved to other regions globally.

On Monday, a Turkish convoy loaded with munitions crossed into Idlib to help insurgents fighting an advance by the Syrian government and was nearly struck by Syrian bombs, according to multiple reports. 

Backed by Russian air strikes, the Syrian government began its offensive in Idlib, the country's last rebel-held stronghold, in late April. Some 300,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and head toward the Turkish border seeking safety. 

Fighting around Khan Sheikhoun broke out this past weekend and has killed at least 59 militants and rebels as well as 28 members of pro-government forces, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syrian government forces have driven out most of the city's 100,000 inhabitants and have been advancing in recent days in an effort to encircle the town and seize a key highway, reported pro-Russian TASS news.  

A Syrian Foreign Ministry source told state news agency SANA that Ankara's “aggressive” move on Monday would not affect “the determination of the Syrian Arab Army to keep hunting the remnants of terrorists” in the town of Khan Sheikhoun or elsewhere in Idlib, Reuters reported. 

Julian Röpcke, a reporter for the German newspaper Bild, said in a tweet on Monday that Syrian forces had begun to attack the Turkish convoy, while pro-government Al-Masdar News reported that the Syrian air strikes narrowly missed the Turkish vehicles. 

The Turkish Defence Ministry issued a statement confirming the attack and said, "A Turkish military convoy was targeted in an airstrike as the convoy was en route to the Observation Post No.9 in Idlib. Three civilians were killed and 12 were injured."

The statement also "strongly condemned the strike, which was against the partnership and dialogue with Russia and present agreements."

Analyst Peto Lucem said  later in the day that the Syrian army captured all farms west of Khan Sheikhoun, cutting off supply lines for the jihadists.

On Monday night, analyst Ali Özkök reported heavy clashes inside Khan Sheikhoun.