Ankara, Moscow holds second day of Idlib talks
Smoke billows above the rebel-controlled town of Binnish near Saraqeb, east of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, on Feb. 26, 2020, during air strikes by pro-regime forces. (AFP Photo)
The delegations met on Feb. 26 and ended the first day of talks in Ankara.
Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal led the third round of talks while the Russian delegation was headed by Presidential envoy for Syria Sergey Vershinin and special envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev.
Talks continue for a second day on Feb. 27.
Meanwhile, the exchange of fire between Turkey and Syria intensified late on Feb. 26. Two Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack by Bashar al-Assad regime’s forces in Idlib, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said.
Turkey retaliated for the attack with full force and 114 regime targets were heavily struck and destroyed, the ministry said in a series of tweets.
Three tanks were seized and an air defense missile system and one Zu-23 anti-aircraft gun, as well as other vehicles, were destroyed, the ministry added.
Idlib is the country's last rebel-controlled stronghold and the Syrian regime’s military campaign there, backed by Russia, has created a humanitarian catastrophe with more than 900,000 people displaced from their homes in nearly three months.
Turkey and Russia back rival groups in the Syrian conflict and over the past weeks Ankara sent thousands of Turkish troops to Idlib. Clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops so far this month have left at least 18 soldiers dead.
Opposition regains key Saraqeb town
In the meantime, 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 Feb. 27.
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 al-Assad.
With Russian backing, regime’s forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported on Feb. 27 that Russian-backed regime forces had seized full control of southern Idlib province after fresh advances against the rebels.
The Assad regime’s 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 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for Assad's forces to pull back from territory that Turkey says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.
Erdoğan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back.
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.