Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters load ammunition at a frontline near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 27 February 2020

Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb

  • Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways
  • Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting

AMMAN: Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military have recaptured the strategic town of Saraqeb, the first significant reverse for the Syrian army in a Russian-backed offensive that had made swift gains, the rebels said on Thursday.
Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways, following advances by the Syrian army in its bid to retake the last large rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war.
Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting.
“The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad’s gangs,” Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for a Turkey-backed coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front, said in a statement, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
With Russian backing, government forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported on Thursday that Russian-backed government forces had seized full control of southern Idlib province after fresh advances against the rebels.
Government forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in the southern Idlib area and the adjoining province of Hama in the last three days, the Observatory said.
The opposition advance on Saraqeb comes ahead of an end-February deadline set by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for Assad’s forces to pull back from territory that Turkey says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.
Erdogan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back.
Turkish and Russian officials were expected to hold a second day of talks in Ankara on Thursday on the conflict.
Ankara has sent thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment into Syria’s northwest corner bordering Turkey to back the rebels and set up new outposts that rebels say was in preparation for a Turkish operation to push back Assad’s forces.
Ibrahim Al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with the rebel factions, said the seizure of the town eases pressure on rebels who in recent days lost a string of significant territory in southern Idlib province and Jabal al Zawiya highlands.
“The rebels this morning completed their control of Saraqeb after having advanced from several fronts. This eases the pressure after the Syrian army’s recent gains,” Idlibi said.
Saraqeb is at the juncture of two main roads linking the capital of Damascus and its second largest city of Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.
Taking back the M5 highway, which goes south to Damascus, from the insurgents had marked a big gain for Assad’s forces as they restored state control over the route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years of conflict.
Opening major highways in rebel hands to revive a shattered war economy has been a key goal of the Russian-led campaign.
“The opposition have now cut the highways and brought the regime to square one,” said Syrian opposition defector general Ahmad Rahhal.


Turkey-backed fighters retaliate against Syria-allied troops

Updated 6 min 33 sec ago

Turkey-backed fighters retaliate against Syria-allied troops

  • Renewed violence has undermined an already shaky cease-fire in place since March

BEIRUT: Syrian opposition groups lobbed hundreds of missiles and artillery rockets at government posts in northwestern Syria on Tuesday, in retaliation for a deadly attack that killed dozens of their fighters a day earlier.
The renewed violence has undermined an already shaky cease-fire in place since March that aimed to quell military operations and government troop advances in the overcrowded rebel enclave.
The Turkey-backed groups, operating under the umbrella of the National Front for Liberation, fired hundreds of artillery rounds and missiles since late Monday at government posts in territories adjacent to areas they control in Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
A spokesman for the NFL, Naji Al-Mustafa, said the rebel’s military retaliation targeted and killed Russian officers in southern Idlib, as well as Syrian soldiers working in the area.
The report could not be independently verified and there was no immediate comment from Russia or Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recorded hundreds of projectiles lobbed by opposition fighters at nearly 20 government posts in different locations in southern Idlib, western Aleppo and the coastal province of Latakia. The Observatory said there were casualties but had no details.
Monday’s strike was the deadliest in Idlib since the Turkish-Russian-brokered truce there came into effect in March, raising fears that the truce could further fray. Some 1 million people were displaced by the last offensive inside the already packed enclave, home to over 3 million.
The airstrike on a rebel training camp near the border with Turkey killed more than 50 Turkish-backed fighters, according to one opposition spokesman, and wounded nearly as many, in one of the heaviest blows to the opposition’s strongest groups. The Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, put the toll at 78 fighters dead and nearly 90 wounded.
The camp, operated by Faylaq Al-Sham, an NFL faction, was hosting training sessions for new recruits. The NFL said a “large number” of fighters were killed, but declined to give details. It vowed retaliation and blamed Russia for the attack.
US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey said the escalation in Idlib in violation of the March cease-fire deal is “dangerous” and threatens to prolong the conflict and deepen the Syrian people’s suffering. Jeffrey said the UN-led political process is the only way to peace and stability in Syria.
“By continuing their quest for a military victory, the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies are threatening the stability of the surrounding region,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “It is time for the Assad regime and its allies to end their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people.”
Russia and Turkey, although they support opposite sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, have worked together to maintain a cease-fire in the last enclave of Syria’s rebels. But the attack comes as relations between the two countries have shown signs of strain over Turkey’s increased military involvement in a region stretching from Syria to the Caucasus and the Mediterranean.