Syrian rebels launched an attack against a five-month Russian-backed Syrian campaign aiming to take back the opposition’s last major bastion, opposition officials, rebels and residents said.
The pushback comes as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where Ankara, a major rebel backer, is expected to ask Russia to rein in Syrian army advances.
The rebel counter-attack sought to abort a push north from Khan Sheikhoun, which Syria’s Russia-backed army seized with the aid of Russian ground troops, towards the rebel-held city Maarat al-Numan.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged Russia had military personnel on the ground in Idlib province after his country initially downplayed its direct military role in the campaign.
The Russian military have in the last few weeks sent more Special Forces that helped break months of stalemate on the frontlines, where rebels were holding back the army from major advances, according to Western intelligence sources.
Taking Maarat al-Numan in southern Idlib would take the Syrian army into densely populated rebel held parts of Idlib province, where people who fled fighting elsewhere in Syria took refuge.
The north-west offensive prompted warnings by the United Nations and aid agencies of a new humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands seeking shelter at the border with Turkey.
Taking Khan Sheikhoun signalled an important gain for Damascus and its ally Moscow, which has helped President Bashar al-Assad turn the tide in the eight-year-old conflict since intervening in 2015.
“We launched pre-emptive operations targeting areas where the army was mobilising and inflicted heavy losses in equipment and lives,” said Captain Naji Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) coalition of mainstream rebel groups.
Russian and Syrian jets stepped up strikes on villages and towns around Maarat al-Numan, from which thousands fled in the last two weeks fearing an imminent assault.
“We killed dozens of Assad (fighters),” Abu Qutada al Shami, a commander in Failaq al-Sham group, told Reuters.
Syrian army units and Iran-backed militias, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have redeployed from south-west Syria to the new frontlines, according to ETANA, a Syrian policy research group in Amman.
As part of the rebel offensive, jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham launched a suicide attack against pro-Assad troops near Abu Dali in southern Idlib, a rebel source said.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian army, which said it was pushing ahead to liberate Idlib province from “militant jihadists” drawn from across the world.
The Russian-led campaign brought Assad closer to regaining control over the strategic M5 and M4 highways, two of Syria’s most important pre-war arteries linking cities held by government and running from Syria’s southern tip near the Jordan border to the northern border with Turkey.