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Syria’s regime re-enters key Idlib town ahead of Russia-Turkey talks

Erdogan set to meet Putin in Moscow as Turkey strikes Assad's advancing forces

Regime forces re-entered the town of Saraqeb in Syria’s embattled Idlib province after losing the town days earlier to rebels, state media said.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the army had re-entered Saraqeb on Monday, March 2 after violent clashes against Turkey-backed rebels.

Rebel spokesman Naji Mustafa however said President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had only taken part of the ghost town, which was long emptied of its inhabitants.

“Assad’s forces have launched an assault on Saraqeb and very violent clashes are ongoing inside,” the spokesman for the National Liberation Front said.

Pro-government forces for the first time in years wrested control of the town on February 8, but jihadists and allied rebels then re-entered the town on Thursday, February 27.

Since December, Russia-backed regime forces have led a deadly military offensive against the last major opposition stronghold of Idlib, where Turkey supports some rebel groups.

The assault on the jihadist-dominated region has caused almost a million people to flee their homes and shelters in the middle of winter.

Violence has escalated between regime fighters and Turkish forces in the Idlib region in the past weeks, killing dozens of troops on each side.

On Sunday, Turkey confirmed a full military operation in northwest Syria after a Thursday airstrike blamed on Damascus killed 34 Turkish soldiers.

More than one hundred Syrian pro-regime soldiers, including members of Syria’s Republican Guard, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah members have been killed over the past few days, according to social media reports.

Saraqeb is a strategic prize for the Syrian government, as it seeks to revive a ravaged economy after nearly nine years of conflict.

The town lies at the intersection of the M5 and M4 highways, which connect the capital and regime coastal stronghold Latakia with second city Aleppo respectively.

On Sunday, SANA reported that the government shot down a Turkish drone near Saraqeb, publishing footage of an aircraft tumbling from the sky in flames.

The Syrian conflict, which began in 2011, killed more than 400,000 people by 2016, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. has warned that Idlib could become a “bloodbath.” On Monday the body said Turkey-backed rebels and Russia may be engaged in war crimes in the province.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.

Putin and Erdogan previously agreed to create a demilitarized zone around Idlib in 2018 on the condition that Islamist extremist rebels would withdraw from belt, but they did not.

Months later, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has ties to al-Qaeda, wrested control over much of Idlib from the NLF.

The Assad regime launched its offensive on Idlib, the country’s last opposition enclave, in April 2019. Russia has supported the offensive with airstrikes, a number of which have deliberately targeted hospitals and civilian marketplaces.

Turkey, which maintains a number of military outposts in the province, has called on international support as it vows to beat back Damascus’s offensive.

Erdogan’s party has said the country cannot accept any more refugees. The Turkish president has said they will be sent to Europe instead.

Damascus vowed Monday to “confront” Turkey’s counterattack, according to SANA.

The Syrian government said on Sunday it shot down three Turkish drones in Syria’s northwest, while two Syrian warplanes were downed.

With reporting from AFP.

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