Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military have seized Nairab town in northwest Syria’s Idlib province, Turkish and rebel officials said, the first area taken back from advancing Syrian government forces.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by Russian air power, are trying to retake the last large rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war. Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by fighting.
Elsewhere in Idlib, government forces captured Kafr Nabl and nearby areas south-west of Nairab, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a local source and pro-Damascus media.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised the offensive, saying the Syrian government could not achieve military victory and Washington was working with Ankara to resolve the crisis. He provided no details.
Turkey sent troops and equipment to support the rebels resisting the offensive.
“With the help of our Turkish friends, we regained control of the strategic town Nairab, the gateway of Saraqeb, after expelling the terrorist Russian militias,” said Yusef Hamoud, spokesman for the Turkish-backed National Army.
A Turkish security official said the Turkish military supported the rebel offensive with shelling and bomb disposal teams and rebels were clearing the town, south-east of rebel-held Idlib city.
The next goal is the strategic town Saraqeb where the M5 highway, Syria’s main north-south artery linking Damascus and Aleppo, meets the road west to the Mediterranean.
Rebels said the capture of Nairab put the M5 road within range of their guns, days after the government in Damascus declared it open to traffic for the first time in years.
“The capture of Nairab restored opposition morale and the next target of the campaign is Saraqeb,” said Syrian military defector general Ahmad Rahhal.
About 20 km south of the border, 10 civilians including seven children were killed in a Russian air strike on a shelter for displaced families in the opposition-held town Maarat Misrin, said Yahya Jaber, a rescuer in the civil defence emergency response force.
Rebel-held Idlib city, the provincial capital, was also attacked. The Observatory said two pupils and two teachers were killed when artillery fire hit a school in the city.
Since Turkey poured troops into north-west Syria to halt the Syrian government forces’ campaign, 17 Turkish force members have been killed.
The US expressed support for Turkey’s stance on Idlib. “The regime’s offensive heightens the risk of conflict with NATO ally Turkey. The answer is a permanent ceasefire and UN-led negotiations under Security Council Resolution 2254,” Pompeo said.
The fighting strained ties between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria’s conflict but which worked to contain violence until the latest flare-up.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said there was no agreement on holding a March 5 summit he proposed with Russia, France and Germany on the Idlib conflict, but he may meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on that date.
Erdogan said a Russian delegation was set to come to Turkey to discuss the situation.
On Saturday, Erdogan said Turkey had set out a “road map” for Syria after calls with the three leaders. The Kremlin said it was discussing the possibility of a four-way summit.
Turkey, which has taken in about 3.7 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot handle another wave and closed the border.
Syrian government forces are advancing to camps for displaced persons near the Turkish border, where migrants fear being caught up in the fighting.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on the warring sides to allow safe passage for civilians. It reminded them hospitals, markets and schools are protected by law.
“We urge parties to allow civilians to move to safety, either in areas they control or across the front lines,” ICRC spokeswoman Ruth Hetherington said.
Most displaced are in pockets of territory near the Turkish border. Bitter winter weather made their plight more desperate, with many camping by due to the lack of shelter.
The government offensive could mark the final chapter of a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, made millions refugees and devastated whole cities since an uprising against Assad broke out in 2011.