Two Turkish soldiers have been killed and two others wounded in an air strike in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib as Turkey-backed Syrian rebels regained a key town during heavy fighting.
Hours after the seizure of Saraqeb, Syrian government forces launched a major counterattack.
The retaking of Saraqeb that sits on the highway is a setback for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces who have scored major gains in a weeks-long Russian-backed campaign in the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province.
The latest casualties brought the number of Turkish security personnel killed during the Russian-backed Syrian government offensive in Idlib this month to 19. Over the past weeks, Turkey sent thousands of troops into the province.
Turkey-backed Syrian rebels said on Thursday they recaptured the strategic town – the first significant reverse for the Syrian army operation that has made swift gains.
From inside Saraqeb, activist Taher al-Omar said the town was now under opposition control. He posted a video with a fighter saying the government forces “ran away like rats”.
Three weeks ago, opposition fighters lost the key northwestern town at the junction of two main highways following rapid advances by Syrian forces in their bid to retake Idlib.
“The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad’s gangs,” Naji al-Mustafa, a spokesman for a Turkey-backed coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front, said in a statement.
Syria’s state news agency SANA acknowledged there were “fierce clashes” between the army and “terrorist groups on the Saraqeb front”.
State media reported intense clashes near Saraqeb, saying rebels sent suicide car bombs and Turkish forces bombarded the area. It said a small group of insurgents reached the highway to score a “propaganda stunt”, adding “Syrian troops are dealing with them.”
‘Pounding rebel positions’
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Alhelbarra, reporting from Hatay, Turkey, said it remained to be seen whether the opposition fighters could hold the town.
“The Syrian army and the Russian military are now mounting a counteroffensive, pounding rebel positions and trying to hold their advance. It will be extremely difficult for the rebels to continue their control of Saraqeb against the backdrop of air strikes by Russian and Syrian forces,” he said.
Damascus, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian armed groups, launched the offensive to take back the last rebel bastion of Idlib.
Nearly one million people have been forced to flee their homes since December in the largest displacement since the civil war in Syria broke out almost nine years ago.
Attacks on Turkish forces have caused severe tensions between the Syrian government’s key ally Russia and Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed again on Wednesday to launch a major military operation to push back Syrian forces if they did not retreat behind Turkish-held areas by the end of February.
Ibrahim al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with fighters on the ground, said the seizure of the town was key for the rebels, who in recent days lost a string of significant territory in southern Idlib province and the 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 links the capital, Damascus, and its second-largest city Aleppo, as well as another highway west to the Mediterranean.
Taking back the M5 highway from opposition fighters marked a big gain for al-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 to revive a shattered war economy has been a key goal of the campaign.
“The opposition has now cut the highways and brought the regime to square one,” said Syrian opposition defector, General Ahmad Rahhal.
The opposition advance on Saraqeb comes ahead of an end-February deadline set by Erdogan for al-Assad’s forces to pull back from territory that Turkey says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.
UK-based war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Thursday that Russian-backed government forces had seized full control of southern Idlib province after a series of advances against the rebels.
Syrian forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in southern Idlib and the adjoining province of Hama over the last three days, the Syrian Observatory said, adding more than 60 fighters were killed on both sides since Wednesday.
Russian diplomats and military officials were set to hold a second round of negotiations with their Turkish counterparts on Thursday.
Ankara has sent thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment into Syria’s northwest across its border to back the rebels and set up new military outposts.