Tensions rise sharply on north-west Syria front
By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo and AFP
Tensions continued to skyrocket in north-western Syria on Wednesday (February 12th) after a Syrian regime military helicopter was shot down in rural Idlib as the regime pressed on with its offensive, despite Turkish objection.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday warned Turkey would strike regime forces "everywhere" if Turkish soldiers come under renewed attack, while also accusing regime ally Russia of committing "massacres" in Idlib.
Erdogan's threats follow direct clashes between Turkish and regime forces over the past 10 days, which also have strained Turkish relations with Russia, a key backer of the Syrian regime.
Turkey has reinforced its positions in Idlib with hundreds of vehicles carrying commandos, howitzers, and soldiers crossing the border over the last few days.
Since February 3rd, Erdogan said, 14 Turks have been killed and 45 wounded by regime shelling in Idlib.
Backed by Russian airstrikes, regime forces have pressed ahead with an offensive to retake Idlib, despite a 2018 ceasefire deal agreed between Turkey and Russia.
The offensive has killed hundreds of civilians since December, and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for safety in harsh winter conditions.
In a rare move on Wednesday, Erdogan was directly critical of Russia.
"The regime, backed by Russian forces and Iran-backed militants, are continuously attacking civilians, committing massacres and shedding blood," he said.
He added that Turkey would do "whatever necessary" to push Syrian regime forces back behind the 12 observation posts it set up in Idlib under the deal.
Syrian helicopter shot down
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan spoke by phone on Wednesday.
A Russian delegation including military and intelligence officials held two rounds of talks in Ankara this week, but no concrete agreement emerged.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a Turkish delegation would now go to Moscow "in the next few days".
US special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey arrived in Ankara late Tuesday for meetings with Turkish officials.
A new convoy of Turkish armoured vehicles arrived Wednesday in the town of Binnish, north-east of Idlib city.
But Syrian forces have been relentlessly advancing, seizing numerous towns and retaking full control of the crucial M5 highway for the first time since 2012.
Armed opposition groups on Tuesday shot down a Syrian regime military helicopter near the village of Qaminas, south-east of Idlib city.
The helicopter exploded in the air sending debris to the ground in an opposition-controlled area, Idlib activist Musab Assaf told Diyaruna, adding that airstrikes and shelling continued in several areas, including Idlib city.
Syrian media on Wednesday said three air crew were killed in the attack. In an earlier toll, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two pilots had died.
Fighting continues on several axes
Military operations in rural Idlib and Aleppo are continuing on several axes, Assaf said, adding that Tahrir al-Sham and its allies were able to retake the city of al-Nairab, which had recently fallen to regime forces.
After retaking the M5 highway on Tuesday, regime forces cleared all areas directly west of the road in Aleppo province of opposition and extremist fighters.
"Areas adjacent to the M5 from the west in Aleppo province are now under regime control," said Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman.
Regime forces also were poised Wednesday to push their rivals out of the road's eastern environs, in a move that would completely secure it from opposition attacks, the Observatory and state media said.
Meanwhile, Russian and Syrian airstrikes continued to target many areas in rural Idlib and Aleppo, Assaf said, noting that they hit a residential area in Idlib city.
Preliminary figures indicate that 12 people were killed and 25 others injured. Half of those killed were children, according to the Observatory.
Many makeshift displacement camps in various parts of rural Idlib and Aleppo also were targeted, causing a large number of casualties, Assaf said.