ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Syrian opposition fighters, supported by Turkish artillery fire, drove government troops out of a key town in Syria’s northwest hours after the soldiers fought their way in Wednesday, an observer group and activists said.
The government attack came despite threats by Turkey’s president to use force if Syria’s army doesn’t pull back by the end of the month and followed just days after rare and direct confrontations between Turkish and Syrian troops inside Syria that killed 20 soldiers.
The town, Saraqeb, sits at the intersection of two major highways, one linking the Syrian capital of Damascus to the north and another connecting the country’ west and east.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition Baladi news network said Syrian government troops entered Saraqeb in the evening after an intense day of fighting with opposition fighters, during which several Turkish observation posts were surrounded.
Later Wednesday, the Observatory reported clashes inside the town between Syrian troops and opposition fighters. Turkish troops stationed north of Saraqeb shelled Syrian troops north and west of the town and the opposition counterattack successfully pushed Syrian troops back to the southern edge of town, the Observatory said.
Syrian state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said government forces encircled Saraqeb after advancing toward the town from three directions. Some opposition fighters were reportedly still in the town, while opposition-run Shaam news agency had denied Syrian troops entered Saraqeb.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have made advances into Idlib, the country’s last rebel stronghold, since December. They have fought to open the Damascus-Aleppo highway, which rebels have kept shut down since 2012. Saraqeb is the last major rebel-held town in their way.
Turkey is a strong backer of some rebel groups in northwestern Syria. It has a dozen military observation posts in Idlib, set up as part of an agreement reached in 2018 with Russia — a main supporter of Assad — to monitor a cease-fire that has since collapsed.
In recent days, Ankara has sent new troops and equipment, setting up new posts around Saraqeb in an attempt to keep it from falling into Syrian government hands.
“If the (Assad) regime does not retreat to areas behind the observations posts, Turkey will be forced to take matters into its own hands,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said to members of his governing party. He spoke after the unusual clashes Monday in which seven Turkish and 13 Syrian soldiers died.
Erdogan said he told Russian President Vladimir Putin during a late-night phone call Tuesday that the Syrian forces must retreat to a point agreed on in a 2018 cease-fire agreement.
Russia and Turkey agreed to a demilitarized zone in Idlib in which Ankara and Moscow would use their forces to enforce a cease-fire and clear the highways restricted by rebel control. That cease-fire and subsequent truces didn’t survive repeated bouts of violence.
“This is a new era in Syria. Nothing can remain the same where the Turkish soldier’s blood has been shed,” Erdogan said. “If our soldiers’ safety cannot be ensured in Idlib, no one can deny our right to ensure it ourselves.”
During their advance on Saraqeb, Syrian forces surrounded four Turkish observation points, the Observatory and news opposition sites said.
It was not clear what happened to the Turkish observation point or its soldiers. There was no immediate comment from Turkish officials.
The Observatory said opposition fighters first withdrew from the town under heavy bombing. Then clashes between government forces and opposition fighters continued east of the highway, north of Saraqeb, on Wednesday night when opposition forces drove the troops out amid Turkish shelling.
The opposition-run Baladi News Network first reported the town fell to Syrian control, adding that Saraqeb came under intense Syrian and Russian fire. It later said only that government forces encircled the town from three sides, without elaborating.
Syrian State news agency SANA reported four civilians killed in rebel shelling of an Aleppo city district to the north that sits on the highway.
The United States, Britain and France requested an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on the escalating situation in northwestern Syria. The open meeting is expected to take place Thursday and include a briefing by the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, and U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, diplomats said Wednesday ahead of an official announcement.
The United Nations warned Wednesday that the humanitarian situation in the northwest was deteriorating.
Some 586,000 people have been displaced since Dec. 1 and over 100,000 others are “facing an immediate risk of displacement,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
He said many of the displaced fled with only the clothes on their back and food, shelter, water, sanitation and education are urgent priorities. A humanitarian plan for the next six months to help up to 800,000 people in the northwest is seeking about $336 million, Dujarric said.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser reported in Ankara and AP writer Sarah El Deeb reported from Beirut. AP writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.
Image: Syrians sit in the back of a truck as they flee the advance of the government forces in the province of Idlib, Syria, towards the Turkish border, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020 (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed)