Syrian government forces made significant advances in north-western Aleppo province, seizing most of the rebel-held region, state media said, a day before new talks between Turkey and Russia on the escalation in the area.
The Syrian government’s recent advances in the north-western region upset fragile co-operation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions but collaborate towards a political solution to the nearly nine-year war.
Turkey, which backs rebels looking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been outraged since Syrian attacks in Idlib region killed 13 Turkish troops in two weeks. It urged Russia to stop the attacks, warning it would use military power to drive back Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of the month.
On Sunday, Russian warplanes mounted heavy air strikes in Aleppo province, bombing towns including Anadan, later seized by Syrian forces supported by Iranian-backed militias, activists reported.
Rebel military sources said opposition fighters pulled back from the area, including Anadan and Haritan.
“In day one, they took an area where for eight years they could not take a single village,” Rami Abdulrahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
“There is a rapid advance by the Syrian regime in this area,” Abdulrahman said. “Factions have withdrawn from most of the area,” he added. The Observatory said Syrian forces seized 13 towns and villages.
The advances came after Assad’s forces drove insurgents from the highway linking Aleppo to Damascus and reopened the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years, in a major strategic accomplishment for Assad.
Turkish-backed rebels launched an operation in Idlib to retake areas lost to Syrian government forces. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said a 100-vehicle convoy of reinforcements, including troops, tanks and military vehicles and equipment, was deployed to Idlib.
Turkey has so far sent thousands of troops and convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia. Images showed houses draped in Turkish flags, while footage showed residents chanting slogans as convoys passed by.
A suicide bomber with the main insurgent group in the area, the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham faction, blew himself up in an attack on Russian positions in Kafr Aleppo, the Ibaa news outlet affiliated with the group reported.
As Syrian forces continued the push to retake Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told his Russian counterpart “the aggression in Idlib must stop and a lasting ceasefire has to be achieved.”
Speaking to reporters during a briefing at the Munich Security Conference, he said Turkish and Russian officials would discuss the issue in Moscow.
Cavusoglu met with US lawmakers at the conference,and added Washington should work to improve its relations with Ankara, not just because of tensions between Turkey and Russia.
“We told them we expect a sincere approach in line with the spirit of our alliance,” he said, after top US envoy for Syria came to Ankara for talks on Idlib and co-operation in Syria.
On Sunday, the White House said President Donald Trump called Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to express concern over violence in Idlib and thank him for Turkey’s efforts to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
Trump conveyed Washington’s desire to see an end to Russian support for Assad’s actions and a political solution to the conflict. “President Trump reiterated continued foreign interference in Libya would only worsen the situation,” the statement said.
Erdogan said his military will drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw from Idlib by month-end. On Saturday, he appeared to push the date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the month if there was no pullback.
In a meeting with Iranian parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Assad said “the Syrian nation was determined to liberate all Syrian land from terrorism”, Syria state news agency SANA reported.