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Syrian regime, opposition forces clash in Idlib town

February 5, 2020

President Bashar Assad's troops are trying to capture Saraqeb, but Turkish-backed opposition forces are fighting back. Turkey could "be forced to take matters into its own hands," Turkish President Erdogan said.

A Turkish military convoy of tanks and armored vehicles passes through the Syrian town of Dana, in the northwestern Idlib province.
Image: AFP via Getty Images

Syrian regime forces on Wednesday captured the strategic town of Saraqeb in the northwestern Idlib province, a war monitor said, though it later reported that Turkish-backed opposition fighters drove out the government troops just hours after.

The regime forces' attack is part of a renewed effort initiated by President Bashar Assad to take control of Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold.

"Regime forces have entered Saraqeb, after hundreds of jihadists and allied forces retreated north of the town," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP news agency before the city was confirmed captured.

During their advance on Saraqeb, Syrian regime forces surrounded several Turkish observation posts, the Observatory and other news sites said. It was not clear what happened to the observation points or their soldiers. 

Saraqeb, which is just east of Idlib city, sits between two main roads that Assad is pushing to fully control.

State TV reported that Syrian government forces "have encircled the town ... on three sides and overlook the junction of the M4 with the M5." The M5 road connects the capital Damascus with Aleppo in the north, while the M4 connects Aleppo with the coastal city of Latakia.

The Observatory said the opposition troops withdrew from Saraqeb under heavy bombing.

Clashes between government and opposition forces continued east of the main highway, north of the town, on Wednesday night. 

Government troops pushed back: Reports

However, AP news agency later reported that Syrian opposition forces backed by Turkish artillery fire had managed to expel the government solders from Saraqeb, just hours after they had fought their way in.

Turkish troops north of the town shelled the nearby Syrian regime troops, while the opposition counterattack managed to push the government forces to the southern edge of the town, AP reported, citing the Observatory.

Turkey is a strong backer of various opposition groups in Syria's northwest and has set up multiple observation posts in the Idlib region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Wednesday that if the Syrian regime did not pull back, Turkey would "be forced to take matters into its own hands."

Syria: Surviving in Idlib

UN Security Council meeting

The clashes in Saraqeb are part of an escalating situation in Syria's northwest fed by renewed clashes between Turkish and Syrian government forces. Recent fighting has killed more than 20 people in the Idlib province, which is already destabilized and faced with a humanitarian crisis. 

The United Nations Security Council is set to hold an emergency session on Thursday to discuss Syria, diplomats said Wednesday. They said the meeting, which will be open to the public, was requested by the United States, France and Britain.

The UN envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, is set to report on the situation in Idlib at the meeting.

The US has also voiced its concern over the current state of affairs, with James Jeffrey, the top US envoy to Syria, telling reporters that the Russians, who back the Syrian government, were increasingly violating the terms of their mutual de-escalation agreement in northeastern Syria. 

On Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a "cessation of hostilities" between Turkey and Syria at a press briefing at the UN headquarters in New York.

lc/cmb (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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