The Syrian army has taken control of a strategic northwestern crossroads town, its latest gain in a weeks-long offensive against the country’s last major rebel bastion.
Saturday’s advance on Saraqeb came shortly after Turkey sent additional troops into the region and threatened to respond if its military observation posts in Idlib, set up under a 2018 truce, come under attack.
“Army units now exercise full control over the town of Saraqeb,” state television reported, showing footage of the town’s streets, deserted after weeks of bombardment.
Saraqeb is considered a strategic prize for the government as it seeks to regain control of the M4 and M5 highways that meet in the town.
The M5, Syria’s longest highway, connects second city Aleppo to the capital Damascus and continues south to the Jordanian border.
With Saraqeb recaptured, little more than half of Idlib province remains in rebel hands, along with slivers of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
Since December, government forces have pressed a blistering assault against the Idlib region with Russian support, retaking town after town despite warnings from Turkey, which is allied with the rebels, to stop.
The violence has killed more than 300 civilians and has displaced approximately 600,000 people since, according to the United Nations.
Witnesses at the border said convoys of Turkish military vehicles had been crossing into Idlib since Friday, delivering supplies and turning back to return with more.
The conflict has disrupted the fragile cooperation between Moscow and Ankara.
Turkey says the advances by Russia-backed Syrian troops and their allies threaten a fresh humanitarian disaster, driving another wave of potential refugees to its southern border, and has threatened to act if they do not pull back.
Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
Turkey beefing up its forces in Idlib has failed to stem the advance by Syrian government forces, leading Ankara and Moscow to hold talks on Saturday about the offensive.
According to Turkish state news agency, Anadolu, Ankara has sent more than 350 vehicles filled with commandos and ammunition to bolster its observation posts in Idlib since Friday.
Officials from Turkey and Russia held three hours of apparently inconclusive talks in Ankara, agreeing to meet again next week.
The two countries support opposing sides in Syria’s nearly nine-year war but have forged a series of agreements since 2017 aimed at containing the bloodshed.
“The situation in Idlib was discussed,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said after the talks. “Steps that could be taken to establish peace on the ground as soon as possible and advance the political process were evaluated.”
A Turkish security source said the troops’ sole mission was to reinforce the country’s 12 existing observation posts, established under a 2018 deal with Russia that aimed at preventing a major battle and an ensuing humanitarian crisis.
Turkey says three of its outposts, all in the southeastern part of Idlib, have been surrounded by the Syrian army and has threatened to respond if any of its posts come under attack.
“Our observation posts in Idlib continue their duties and are capable of protecting themselves with the weapons and equipment they possess,” the Turkish defence ministry said on Twitter.
“In the event of a new attack, proper response will be given in the strongest manner, based on the right of self-defence.”