Turkey Says 51 Syrian Soldiers Killed as Rebels Hit Back in Idlib

Turkey said on Tuesday 51 Syrian soldiers were killed in northwest Syria as Turkish-backed rebels struck back against Russian-supported government forces who had made gains in their campaign to eliminate the last insurgent bastion in the country.

The Turkish Defence Ministry cited sources on the ground for the information, adding that two Syrian tanks and one ammunition store were destroyed as well.

Hours before, a war monitor reported that Syrian government forces seized control of the main Aleppo-to-Damascus highway running through the embattled northwest province of Idlib for the first time since the early days of the civil war in 2012.

But Syrian state media made no mention of this and rebel sources later said fighting was continuing in some northern areas near the M-5 highway, which links Aleppo with the capital Damascus and ultimately Deraa in the far south.

Turkish backed Syrian fighters prepare to go to frontline in Idlib province, Syria. Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.Ghaith Alsayed,AP

In response, insurgents shot down a Syrian military helicopter and advanced toward the town of Nairab, which the Turkish Defence Ministry said had been abandoned by Syrian government forces.
A Turkish official said the rebels, bolstered by Turkish artillery, had begun "a full-fledged attack" on an area recently lost to the government side near Saraqeb, a strategic crossroads town on the M5 highway. A rebel commander told Reuters they were pushing back government forces there.

For its part, the Syrian army said on Tuesday it would respond to attacks by Turkish forces who it said were trying to halt army advances into Idlib province.

The flare-up of fighting has given rise to some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the nine-year-old war in which Russia and Iran have backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian government helicopter is shot by a missile in Idlib province, Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Ghaith Alsayed,AP

James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria, is set to meet senior Turkish officials in Ankara on Wednesday and the U.S. Embassy there said they would discuss working together toward a political solution to the conflict.

"Today, our NATO ally Turkey is facing a threat from Assad's government and Russia. We are here to assess the situation with the Turkish government and offer support if possible," said Jeffrey, who arrived in Ankara late on Tuesday.

Idlib's fate may well be decided by Turkey and Russia as much as by Assad.

Russia has officers on the ground advising the Syrians on the campaign as well as some ground forces, and Russian warplanes have carried out numerous air strikes.

Ankara has sent thousands of soldiers across the border to help stem the Syrian offensive.

Turkish military vehicles are seen in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020. KHALIL ASHAWI/ REUTERS

Relief agencies meanwhile said an exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians from the afflicted areas was the largest such movement in the war and marked a new humanitarian crisis.

Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot absorb any more. It said it would halt any new refugee waves from Idlib and its military would remain deployed there.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday the Syrian government would pay a "very heavy price" for attacking Turkish troops, including five killed on Monday and eight Turkish personnel killed a week earlier.

"We gave the necessary responses to the Syrian side at the highest level. Especially in Idlib, they got what they deserved. But this is not enough, it will continue," he said in Ankara, adding he would announce on Wednesday a detailed plan for Idlib.