|Date: Feb 27, 2020|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb|
|Turkey will repel Syrian forces from Idlib posts this week: Erdogan|
AMMAN: Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military have recaptured the strategic town of Saraqeb, the first significant reverse for the Syrian army in a Russian-backed offensive that had made swift gains, the rebels said Thursday.
Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways, following advances by the Syrian army in its bid to retake the last large rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war.
Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting.
"The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad's gangs," Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for a Turkey-backed coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front, said in a statement, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
With Russian backing, government forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported Thursday that Russian-backed government forces had seized full control of southern Idlib province after fresh advances against the rebels.
Government forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in the southern Idlib area and the adjoining province of Hama in the last three days, the Observatory said.
The opposition advance on Saraqeb comes ahead of an end-February deadline set by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for Assad's forces to pull back from territory that Turkey says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.
Erdogan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back.
Turkish and Russian officials were expected to hold a second day of talks in Ankara Thursday on the conflict.
Ankara has sent thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment into Syria's northwest corner bordering Turkey to back the rebels and set up new outposts that rebels say was in preparation for a Turkish operation to push back Assad's forces.
Ibrahim al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with the rebel factions, said the seizure of the town eases pressure on rebels who in recent days lost a string of significant territory in southern Idlib province and Jabal al Zawiya highlands.
"The rebels this morning completed their control of Saraqeb after having advanced from several fronts. This eases the pressure after the Syrian army's recent gains," Idlibi said.
Saraqeb is at the juncture of two main roads linking the capital of Damascus and its second largest city of Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.
Taking back the M5 highway, which goes south to Damascus, from the insurgents had marked a big gain for Assad's forces as they restored state control over the route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years of conflict.
Opening major highways in rebel hands to revive a shattered war economy has been a key goal of the Russian-led campaign.
"The opposition have now cut the highways and brought the regime to square one," said Syrian opposition defector general Ahmad Rahhal.
Turkey will repel Syrian forces from Idlib posts this week: Erdogan
Nevzat Devranoglu & Tom Perry| Reuters
ANKARA: Turkey plans to push Syrian government forces away from its military observation posts in northwest Syria's Idlib region this week, President Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday, despite continued advances by Damascus's Russian-backed military.
Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced in the last three months by fighting between Turkish-backed rebels and Syrian forces trying to recapture the last major insurgent-held region in Syria after nine years of war.
Ankara has sent thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment into the region, in Syria's northwest corner bordering Turkey, to support the rebels and Erdogan has vowed to push back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
"We are planning to liberate our observation posts from the surrounding (Syrian government forces) by the end of this month, one way or another," Erdogan told his party's lawmakers in a speech.
But Assad's forces made fresh gains in southern Idlib province where they took a number of villages Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, and a military news outlet run by Assad's Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
The pro-government forces' immediate objective is to reach the town of Kafar Aweed, the capture of which would force rebels to withdraw from a wider tract of territory including their last remaining foothold in Hama province, Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said.
The Syrian army said it had seized numerous villages and towns in the last few days in the south of Idlib province, describing the captured territory as an important crossroads between rebel-held territories.
Erdogan first demanded on Feb. 5 that Assad's forces pull back behind a line of Turkish observation posts by end-February, or Turkey would drive them back.
Turkey set up 12 observation posts up around a "de-escalation zone" in Idlib under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, but several now find themselves behind Syrian government front lines.
Syrian insurgents backed by the Turkish military seized the town of Nairab in Idlib this week, according to rebel and Turkish sources, the first area to be taken back from advancing Syrian government forces.
WAVE OF MIGRANTS
Ankara is increasingly concerned about the build-up of displaced people south of its frontier with Syria. Turkey, which has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot handle another influx and has closed the border.
Syrian government forces are advancing closer to the camps for uprooted people near the Turkish border, where the migrants fear being engulfed in the fighting.
Turkish and Russian officials began a third round of talks in Ankara on Wednesday aimed at reducing tensions in the region. Turkey's state-owned Anadolu news agency said the talks would continue on Thursday.
Two previous rounds in Ankara and Moscow have failed to yield any tangible progress.
Russia's Foreign Ministry expected positive results, RIA news agency cited Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying, but a Turkish official was not optimistic.
"At the moment, solely military diplomacy is being carried out and it is not possible to solve the problem on the ground like this," the Turkish official told Reuters.
He said clear results were unlikely until a planned Turkey-Russia-Iran summit March 6. A summit a day earlier between Russia, Turkey, France and Germany had been proposed, but Moscow has not sounded receptive to the idea.
Erdogan said in Wednesday's speech that he hoped the issue of using the air space over Idlib will be resolved soon.
Russia controls the region's air space and has been bombing Turkish-supported rebels on a daily basis in support of the offensive by Syrian government forces.