Turkish soldiers and moderate opposition groups in northwestern Syria’s Idlib on Thursday launched a military operation against Assad regime’s forces, which have been advancing south of the province to capture the last strong opposition bastion.
Opposition groups trying to recapture settlements seized by the regime in southern Idlib province and captured the village of Neirab after fierce clashes. The village on the M4 highway is some 10 kilometers southeast of Idlib city center and 6 kilometers west of the strategic town of Saraqib.
Targeting regime forces with artillery, opposition groups destroyed a tank and armored vehicle belonging to the regime. A regime tank has also been seized by opposition groups.
Later in the day, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that two Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike in Idlib and five others were wounded. The ministry added that “more than 50 regime elements, five tanks, two armored vehicles, two technicals and one howitzer have been annihilated.”
Turkey's Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said in a tweet the attack was carried out by the Assad regime.
The Russian Defense Ministry also made a statement saying that opposition groups broke through the lines of the Syrian regime forces in two areas of Idlib province. The Russian air force carried out strikes and allowed the regime foces to repel the attacks, the ministry was cited as saying.
The ministry added that Turkey is providing artillery support to opposition groups.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron urged Russia in a phone call with President Vladimir Putin Thursday to stop attacks on Idlib immediately, stating that they are ready to meet with Putin and President Erdoğan to find a political solution.
Regime forces seized control of Neirab on Feb. 3 amid an offensive ongoing since January, capturing Saraqib two days later.
Saraqib is located on a strategic crossroads connecting the country’s two main highways, M4 and M5. The M4 motorway connects the port city of Latakia to the Iraqi border while the M5 forms the backbone of the country's highways, connecting economic hub Aleppo to central cities of Hama and Homs, the capital Damascus and to the Jordanian border further south.
In September 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed to turn Idlib province into a de-escalation zone in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited. But since then, more than 1,800 civilians have been killed in attacks by the regime and Russian forces, flouting both the 2018 cease-fire and a new one that started Jan. 12.
There are 12 Turkish observation points inside Syrian territory, which were established according to the Sochi deal. Tensions in the region escalated after different Syrian regime attacks in Idlib killed 12 Turkish troops, who were in northwestern Syria, just across the Turkish border, as part of an anti-terror and peace mission.
Assad regime advances have forced more than 1.7 million civilians to flee toward the border with Turkey, which already hosts more than 3.7 million Syrians and the largest number of refugees in the world.