ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey-backed opposition forces attacked government troops in a village in northwest Syria on Thursday, triggering violent clashes between the two sides, Turkish state-run media and Syrian opposition activists said. The fighting came amid faltering talks between Turkish and Russian officials on restoring calm to the Idlib area.
Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war. The Syrian government’s crushing military campaign against the rebel-held Idlib stronghold, backed by Russia, has strained cooperation between Moscow and Ankara and led to direct clashes between Syrian and Turkish troops on several occasions in recent weeks.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said opposition fighters attacked Syrian government forces and entered the the village of Nairab, which the troops had captured Feb. 3. It said the opposition forces began advancing toward Nairab after Syrian government targets there were hit with artillery fire. They destroyed a tank and an armored personnelcarrier belonging to Syrian government forces and seized a second tank, according to the report.
Syrian opposition activists confirmed the report, saying Turkey-backed insurgents stormed the village of Nairab near the strategic town of Saraqeb, both of which were captured by Syrian troops earlier this month.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syria war monitor, reported casualties on both sides. It wasn’t immediately clear if Turkish troops were participating in the attack.
Syrian state TV reported that government forces have repelled the attacks on Nairab.
Syrian government forces have, for weeks, been conducting a crushing military campaign to recapture parts of the last rebel-held areas in Idlib province as well as the countryside of neighboring Aleppo province. The swift advances on multiple fronts have triggered the largest single wave of displacement in the nine-year civil war, with nearly 1 million people driven from their homes toward the Turkish border.
The advance has angered neighboring Turkey, which backs the opposition fighters seeking to topple President Bashar Assad and maintains observation posts in northern Syria that were set up to monitor an earlier cease-fire agreement reached with Russia. Turkey sent in thousands of additional troops and armored vehicles in recent weeks and threatened to attack Assad’s forces unless they retreat.
“We are delivering our final warnings. We have not reached the desired results as yet,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday. “The operation in Idlib is a matter of time. We could enter (Idlib) suddenly one night.”
Erdogan spoke a day after a top Turkish official said talks in Moscow between Russian and Turkish representatives to reduce tensions in Idlib did not yield a “satisfactory result” for Ankara. The official said however, that the sides agreed to continue discussions.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Russian and Turkish delegations would hold further talks on how to reduce tensions in Idlib province and that the Turkish and Russian leaders could meet too, if necessary.
“It is true that at the moment, there are differences in the (two sides’) positions,” Cavusoglu told state television TRT. The delegations narrowed their differences a bit but “are not yet at the point we want” to be, he said.
Turkey and Russia have closely coordinated their moves in recent years in Idlib province. A truce reached between the two countries collapsed in late 2019, leading to the current Syrian offensive, backed by Russia.
Russian officials have said they hold Turkey responsible for the collapse of the cease-fire deal struck in Sochi, Russia in September 2018, saying Ankara had not held up its end of the deal to rein in militants in Syria who continued attacking Syrian and Russian targets.
Reporting by Suzan Fraser
Image: In this photo released Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian army soldiers flash the victory sign as they patrol the village of Tallet Shweihna, in Aleppo province, Syria (SANA via AP)