- Associated Press - Monday, March 2, 2020

BEIRUT (AP) - Turkey’s president on Monday said he hopes to broker a cease-fire in Syria later this week in Moscow when he meets with his Russian counterpart, after growing alarm over direct clashes in northwest Syria between Turkish troops and Syrian forces backed by Russia.

The Syrian government’s monthslong offensive into Idlib province, the last rebel-held area in the country, has sparked one of the war’s worst humanitarian crises. Almost one million Syrian civilians have fled north toward the sealed Turkish border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sent thousands of troops into Idlib to support the opposition fighters holed up there, but hasn’t been able to stop the government offensive.

Erdogan, speaking Monday to a gathering of his ruling party in the Turkish capital, said he hoped to reach a cease-fire deal for Idlib when he meets Vladimir Putin on Thursday to “prevent further bloodshed.” He did not elaborate. In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed Thursday’s meeting.

Direct combat between Turkish and Syrian forces had been rare throughout the nine-year civil war.



Russia tipped balance in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s favor after it joined the conflict on his side in September 2015. Turkey and Russia have been closely coordinating over the situation in Syria in recent years, even as Turkey continues to heavily back the Syrian opposition.

Russia remained largely on the sidelines over the weekend, even as a Turkish-led counter-offensive in Idlib blunted and in some cases reversed Syrian government advances.

However, on Monday, Syrian government forces and their allies retook the key northwestern town of Saraqeb, just days after taking it - and then losing it again - to rebel forces, according to pro-government media and an opposition war monitor. The town lies on the main highway linking Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, also known as the M5, making it key to who controls the country.

Nearby fighting continued, however, and as a reporter for Syrian state TV was speaking live from inside Saraqeb, a shell exploded behind him causing a mushroom cloud of dust. The journalist and his crew rushed for cover in a nearby building.

Later Monday, Russia said its military police units deployed to Saraqeb “given its importance for ensuring security and uninterrupted transit of vehicles and civilians.” The move appeared to be an attempt to secure control of the town once and for all.

Fighting has worsened over the past few days, after Syrian shelling killed more than 30 Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Turkey responded with drone attacks and shelling that killed more than 90 Syrian troops and allied gunmen. The Turkish air force also shot down two Syrian warplanes after Syria’s air defenses shot down one of its drones. The Syrian pilots ejected safely.

Turkey lost 54 soldiers in Syria in February, including 33 killed Thursday in a single airstrike.

Outraged, Erdogan then announced his country’s western borders with Europe were open Saturday for thousands of migrants and refugees wanting to cross, as he sought to pressure the EU to help Turkey handle the fallout from the war in Syria. Thousands of migrants have since converged to Turkey’s land and sea borders with Greece, trying to enter Europe.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the international community should prevent Erdogan from taking advantage of the “suffering of Syrians in order to blackmail European countries by releasing waves of migrants toward Europe.”

On the southern edge of Idlib, intense fighting was reported near the village of Kafranbel, which Syrian troops captured last week, opposition activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops captured the town under the cover of Russian airstrikes.

Syrian government forces have captured dozens of villages since they launched the latest offensive in Idlib in early December, leaving hundreds of civilians dead and displacing more than 950,000 people.

___

Associated Press writers Andrew Wilks in Ankara, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed reporting.

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