Two Turkish soldiers killed as Syrian rebels stage assault on Idlib's Neirab
Two Turkish soldiers were killed and five more wounded by a pro-Syrian government forces air strike in northwestern Syria, Ankara’s defence ministry said on Thursday, as fighting heated up around the Idlib province town of Neirab.
In retaliation, 50 Syrian government soldiers were killed, and five tanks, two armoured personnel carriers, two armoured trucks and one howitzer destroyed, the ministry claimed.
The statement did not say if warplanes belonging to Damascus or its ally Russia were responsible for the strikes against Turkish forces.
Meanwhile, Turkey-backed rebels pushed towards Neirab, a town in Idlib province’s west recently taken by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Activists and footage circulating online suggested that the rebels, belonging to Ankara-backed groups that are part of the Syrian National Army, were supported by Turkish commandos.
An official Turkish source confirmed to Middle East Eye that the rebels targeting Neirab had Turkey’s support.
Activist Khaled al-Idlabi told MEE from the frontline that violent clashes were taking place between the rebels and government forces stationed inside buildings in Nairab and on the route to nearby Saraqeb.
“Turkish artillery shells bombing on the fronts non-stop, amid a widespread deployment of Turkish army soldiers and tanks,” Idlabi said.
Turkish troops and tanks had begun fanning out around the strategic town of Saraqeb, which lies on the M5 highway and was lost by rebels earlier this month, he added.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened a full-blown assault against advancing Syrian government forces in increasingly muscular language in recent days. He has given Damascus an end-of-February deadline to retreat.
Backed by Russian airpower, Assad’s troops have captured more than 600 square km of previously rebel-held territory in Idlib and Aleppo provinces since December, displacing around a million people towards the Turkish border in the process.
Anxious about the onslaught, which has killed more than 300 civilians, and a possible influx of refugees, Ankara has poured men, arms and vehicles into northwestern Syria in an attempt to stem the tide.
Despite several threats of an “imminent” counteroffensive, and an exchange of artillery fire earlier this month that killed 13 Turkish soldiers, no large-scale operation has materialised.
When asked about the Neirab assault, a Turkish military source was keen to stress to MEE that Ankara had not launched an operation in Idlib.
That said, the Turkish support on Thursday had been a game-changer, Obaida al-Fadil, director of the Idlib Media Centre activist group, told MEE.
'The battle is completely different from all the previous. Today, the Turkish army forces entered the battle directly'
- Obaida al-Fadil, activist
"The battle is completely different from all the previous [ones]. Today, the Turkish army forces entered the battle directly," Fadil, who has been displaced from Saraqeb to Idlib city, said.
"Several advanced positions have been seized, and there is much Turkish bombardment targeting most of the eastern fronts."
The battle centres on three axes, according to activist Turky al-Auwaid, who has been displaced from southern Idlib to the north of the province.
"The Turkish-backed National Army has launched an attack on the towns of Saraqeb and Nairab, and Maar Dibsah, which are the villages adjacent to the M5 and M4 international highways," al-Auwaid said.
In the sky, Syrian and Russian aircraft have continued to carry out bombing raids, focusing on Idlib city, as well as the southern and eastern parts of its eponymous province.
Two activists were wounded in eastern Idlib while covering the Russian air attacks, according to local media.