BEIRUT (AP) — Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters on Thursday retook a strategic northwestern town in Syria that was recently captured by government forces, and cut the highway linking Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012.
The retaking of Saraqeb which sits on the highway is a setback for Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces, who have scored major gains in a weekslong Russian-backed campaign in the last rebel stronghold, in Idlib province. Officials had hailed the reopening of the M% motorway as a major victory in the nine-year civil war.
The government’s military campaign to recapture Idlib, the last opposition-held stronghold in the country, triggered a humanitarian catastrophe and the war’s largest single wave of displacement. According to the U.N. almost 950,000 civilians have been displaced since early December, and more than 300 killed. Most have fled north to safer areas near the Turkish border, overwhelming camps already crowded with refugees in cold winter weather. Children have been reported freezing to death.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group, said the opposition fighters seized Saraqeb after intense bombardment by Turkish troops. Turkey and Russia support opposite sides in Syria’s brutal civil war, with Ankara backing the opposition and Moscow backing Assad.
From inside Saraqeb, activist Taher al-Omar said the town is under opposition control. He posted a video of a fighter saying the government forces “ran away like rats.”
The Observatory said more than 60 fighters have been killed on both sides since Wednesday, and that on Thursday government forces launched a counteroffensive under cover of Russian airstrikes to try retake the town.
Syrian state media reported intense clashes near Saraqeb, saying insurgents sent suicide car bombs and that Turkish forces bombarded the area. It said a small group of insurgents reached the highway to score a “propaganda stunt,” and that “Syrian troops are dealing with them.”
Backed by Russian air power, Assad’s forces have in the past few days captured dozens of villages, including major rebel strongholds in the last opposition-held area.
The campaign also seized the last segments of the south-north M5 highway. When the government forces took Saraqeb this month, it was the last major rebel-held town along the highway.
Turkey has sent thousands of troops into Idlib province in the past few weeks. Clashes between Syrian and Turkish troops have killed 18 Turkish soldiers.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said Thursday that two Turkish soldiers were killed in Syria in an air attack in Idlib province the previous day, and that two others were wounded.
Turkey responded by targeting Syrian government forces. An air defense missile system, an antiaircraft gun, three tanks, an ammunition vehicle, an antitank weapon and two construction vehicles were destroyed, the ministry said.