AMMAN/BEIRUT/ANKARA (Reuters) – Syrian government forces made significant advances on Sunday in the country’s northwestern Aleppo province, seizing most of the rebel-held region, state media said, a day before a new round of talks between Turkey and Russia on the escalation in the area.
The Syrian government’s recent advances in the northwestern region have upset a fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict but have collaborated toward a political solution to the nearly nine-year war.
Turkey, which backs rebels looking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been outraged since Syrian attacks in the Idlib region killed 13 Turkish troops in two weeks. It has urged Russia to stop the attacks, warning it would use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of the month.
On Sunday, Russian warplanes mounted heavy air strikes in Aleppo province, bombing towns including Anadan, which was later seized by Syrian forces supported by Iranian-backed militias, activists reported.
Rebel military sources said opposition fighters had pulled back from the area, including Anadan and the town of Haritan.
“In day one, they took an area where for eight years they could not take a single village,” Rami Abdulrahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
“There is very rapid advance by the (Syrian) regime in this area,” Abdulrahman said. “The factions have withdrawn from most of the area,” he added. The Observatory said Syrian forces had seized 13 towns and villages in the area.
The advances came after Assad’s forces drove insurgents from the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, and reopened the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years, in a major strategic accomplishment for Assad.
Turkish-backed rebels have launched an operation in Idlib to retake areas lost to Syrian government forces. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said on Sunday that a 100-vehicle convoy of reinforcements, including troops, tanks and military vehicles and equipment, had been deployed to Idlib.
Turkey has so far sent thousands of troops and hundreds of convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia. Images from the region showed many houses draped in Turkish flags, while footage showed residents chanting slogans as convoys passed by.
A suicide bomber with the main insurgent group in the area, the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham faction, blew himself up in an attack on Russian positions in the town of Kafr Aleppo, the Ibaa news outlet affiliated with the group reported.
As Syrian forces continued their push to retake Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday he told his Russian counterpart (on Saturday) “that the aggression in Idlib must stop and that a lasting ceasefire has to be achieved now.”
Speaking to reporters during a briefing at the Munich Security Conference, he added that Turkish and Russian officials would discuss the issue in Moscow on Monday.
Cavusoglu also said he met with some U.S. lawmakers at the conference, and added Washington should work to improve its relations with Ankara, not just because of tensions between Turkey and Russia.
“We told them that we expected a sincere approach from the United States in line with the spirit of our alliance,” he said, days after the top U.S. envoy for Syria came to Ankara for talks on Idlib and cooperation in Syria.
On Sunday, the White House said President Donald Trump called Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday to express concern over violence in Idlib and thank him for Turkey’s efforts to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
It said Trump conveyed Washington’s desire to see an end to Russian support for Assad’s actions and for a political solution to the conflict. “President Trump also reiterated that continued foreign interference in Libya would only serve to worsen the situation,” the statement said.
Erdogan has said his military will drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw out of Idlib by the end of the month. On Saturday, he appeared to pull that date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the month if there was no pullback.
In a meeting with Iranian parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Assad said that “the Syrian nation was determined to liberate all Syrian land from terrorism”, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Tom Perry and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by John Stonestreet, Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney
Image: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, speaks to Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, in Damascus, Syria, on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020. (SANA via AP)