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Syrian rebels hold-off regime offensive in key Idlib town Open in fullscreen

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Syrian rebels hold-off regime offensive in key Idlib town

Damascus and Moscow have turned their sights to the M4 highway [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 February, 2020

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The town, a gateway to the strategic government-held town of Saraqeb, lies on the M4 highway, connecting the port city of Latakia to the Iraqi border.
Syrian rebel fighters fought off a second pro-regime advance into the key Idlib town of Al-Nayrab early Tuesday, after it was recaptured a day earlier.

A source who spoke to The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site claimed that "dozens" of Syrian regime fighters were killed in fierce clashes as Turkish-backed rebels who fought to clear the town on Monday.

Five regime tanks were destroyed on Tuesday when President Basar Al-Assad's forces began shelling the town after being pushed back.

"With the help of our Turkish friends, we have regained control of the strategic town of Nairab, the gateway of Saraqeb, after expelling the terrorist Russian militias," Yusef Hamoud, spokesman for the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army, told Reuters news agency.

Rebels had already broken back into Al-Nayrab last week after the regime seized it at the start of the month, but then lost it again several hours later.

The town is a gateway to the strategic regime-held town of Saraqeb, which lies on the M4 highway which connects the port city of Latakia to the Iraqi border.

Suspected Russian missiles carrying cluster bombs targeted the city of Idlib on Tuesday, resulting in three casualties, including two children, according to Syrian White Helmets volunteers defence group. 

On Monday, a war monitor reported that Russian air strikes killed five civilians in the Jabal Al-Zawiya area, south of Saraqeb.

Moscow's air power has proven indispensable to the Syrian regime - a staunch ally of Damascus.

Having taken back control of the M5, another important highway which connects the capital with Aleppo, the allies are now turning their sights to the M4, which requires operations against towns and villages lying alongside it, according to Al-Jazeera.

Analysts expect a tough battle for the town of Jisr al-Shighour, held by the Turkistan Islamic Party, whose fighters mainly hail from China's Uighur Muslim minority.

They are allied to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group which dominates the opposition in the Idlib region.

Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced when the regime launched its military offensive in April 2019 to capture rebel-held areas western Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

Several fragile ceasefires failed to hold in the summer and Damascus relaunched its offensive in December.

The United Nations said on Monday that the latest fighting was coming "dangerously close" to the displaced people's encampments, risking an imminent "bloodbath".

Mark Cutts, a UN humanitarian coordinator, told reporters in Geneva that the intergovernmental organisation was trying to double aid deliveries across a border crossing with Turkey, from 50 to 100 trucks a day.

Turkey has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees and said it is unwilling to open its borders to a new influx from Syria's northwest.

Fearing a fresh refugee crisis, Turkey has poured thousands of troops into Idlib in the last few weeks and President Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to use military force to drive back Syrian forces unless they pull back by the end of the month.

As many as 16 Turkish military personnel have been killed by Syrian forces and several Turkish military observation posts - which were considered safe following an agreement between Moscow and Ankara - ended up being surrounded in areas retaken by regime forces.

This has raised tensions between Turkey and Russia, which, although backing opposing sides in Syria's conflict, had held talks on ceasefires.

Eearlier this week, Erdogan announced a four-party summit with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany to stem the ongoing violence, on Tuesday he said that there had been "no agreement" on talks.

The Turkish leader said he might instead hold face-to-face talks with Putin on 5 March, either in Istanbul or in Ankara.

Agencies contributed to this report.

Read more: Erdogan says no agreement yet on four-way Syria summit to end Idlib onslaught

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