Syrian rebels claim control of Idlib's Saraqeb as government forces fight back
Turkey-backed rebels seized the highly strategic Idlib province town of Saraqeb from pro-Syrian government forces on Thursday, their first major success in weeks of fighting, with heavy clashes ongoing.
The victory marked a shift in momentum, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, adding that three more Turkish soldiers had been killed in northwestern Syria.
Saraqeb, which lies on the intersection of the M5 and M4 highways, was captured by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this month, one of many major urban areas to fall to Damascus since December.
However, now rebel groups are pushing their advance past Saraqeb and towards nearby villages that lie along the M5 highway, with pro-Assad forces heavily bombarding the town in return.
'Saraqeb was badly looted. The Syrian army stole civilians’ furniture, and all the windows and doors made of aluminium'
- Mohamed Bahjat Issa, activist
"The town has been fully recaptured and is being fully inspected for fear of ambushes or mines," activist Mohamed Bahjat Issa told Middle East Eye.
Saraqeb was a significant gain for the Syrian government when its forces captured it and the last remaining areas of the M5 out of Damascus' hands three weeks ago.
The M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus via the cities of Homs and Hama is now interrupted despite the government officially opening it for civilian traffic five days ago.
The town is also the eastern entrance to Idlib city and the gateway to nearby Ariha, the two largest cities in rebel-held areas of northwest Syria.
Rebels and activists said they found Saraqeb stripped of all valuable assets, large or small, when they entered the town.
"Saraqeb was badly looted. The Syrian army stole civilians’ furniture, and all the windows and doors made of aluminium. The copper household electrical wires and the granite kitchen counters were also stolen," Issa said.
“Everything is of financial value and can be sold, even if its price is low and it was stolen.”
According to Issa, many of the homes that weren’t looted were torched. “Government forces have great hatred for Saraqeb, as it was a revolutionary stronghold,” he said.
Another activist from Saraqeb, Muhammad Refaat al-Bakour, said a lot of possessions had been abandoned when fighting displaced the town’s residents earlier this month.
“When we were displaced, my family couldn’t move all the furniture from the house,” he told MEE.
“My house has been completely looted, there’s nothing left.”
Turkish posts relieved
More than 600 square km have been retaken by Damascus since an offensive on the last remaining rebel pocket in northwest Syria was launched in December.
This week's rebel counteroffensive has seen the first significant victories recorded by the opposition in that time, with the town of Neirab west of Saraqeb also recaptured.
However, according to the Observatory, pro-government forces have also seized around 60 towns and villages in southern Idlib and next-door Hama province in the past three days.
That included Kafranbel, a town that has iconic status for the revolution against Assad’s rule and is renowned as a hotbed of activism.
Around a million people, over half of them children, have been displaced towards the Turkish border by the fighting.
Anxious of a new influx of refugees, Turkey, which already hosts some 3.5 million Syrians fleeing the war, has poured arms and men into Idlib in an attempt to stymie the assault and support observation posts dotted around the province as part of a 2018 agreement with Russia.
Erdogan has given Damascus an end-of-February deadline to retreat from areas it has taken, threatening full-scale military retaliation if it does not.
On Wednesday, he said Turkey was prepared to "risk all kinds of sacrifices" to ensure the Turkish outposts surrounded by pro-government forces in recent weeks will be relieved.
According to Bakour, the rebels have lifted the siege on three of the four Turkish posts around Saraqeb.
"The Turkey-backed Syrian rebels continue to advance toward the fourth post south of Saraqeb, which is surrounded by Assad's forces," he said.
Meanwhile, ongoing talks with Russia, whose warplanes are backing Assad’s forces on the ground, are deadlocked.
Ankara and Moscow, the chief allies of the rebels and government respectively, have previously come to arrangements to halt fighting in northwest Syria, but now accuse each other of obstructing their 2018 Sochi agreement that staved off a pro-government assault.
Erdogan has intimated he is likely to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on 5 March to discuss de-escalating events in Idlib. However, on Thursday the Kremlin denied such an meeting was going to take place.