Opposition forces retake strategic Saraqeb town and cut off key highway linking capital Damascus with northern city of Aleppo, days after regime reopened it for first time since 2012.

Smoke billows over the town of Saraqeb in the eastern part of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, following bombardment by Syrian regime forces, on February 27, 2020.
Smoke billows over the town of Saraqeb in the eastern part of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, following bombardment by Syrian regime forces, on February 27, 2020. (AFP)

The Syrian opposition retook a key northwestern town in Syria on Thursday that was recently captured by regime forces and cut the highway linking the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo. 

Also on Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said three Turkish soldiers were killed in a regime air strike in Idlib. 

Saraqeb is at the juncture of two main roads linking Damascus and its second-largest city of Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.

The loss of Saraqeb would be the first major reverse for the Syrian regime in a Russian-backed offensive that had made swift gains.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Syria's Idlib region in an unprecedented move to back its allied opposition groups against the offensive by forces loyal to Bashar al Assad.

Artillery fire by the Assad regime killed at least four civilians, including three children, in Idlib, White Helmets said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, opposition forces took the village of Nairab in Saraqeb — also a gateway into the embattled Idlib.

Idlib, near Turkey's southern border, falls within a de-confliction zone laid out in a deal between Turkey and Russia in late 2018.

The Syrian regime and its allies have consistently broken the terms of the ceasefire, launching frequent attacks inside the territory that has displaced nearly one million Syrians, most of them toward Turkey's border. 

Turkish soldiers killed

Meanwhile, President Erdogan told a gathering of the governing AK Party in Ankara that three Turkish soldiers were killed in regime fire. 

"We have three martyrs in Idlib, but the regime's losses are very high," Erdogan said.

The death toll rose after the Defence Ministry earlier on Thursday said two soldiers had been killed and two had been injured in the Syrian region.

The latest casualties have brought the number of Turkish security personnel killed in regime fire in Idlib this month to 20.

Despite the losses, Erdogan said developments in Idlib had taken a "favourable turn."

"The developments in Idlib are now in favour of Turkey," Erdogan said. 

"We have also reversed the situation in Libya which was previously in favour of [Libyan warlord Khalifa] Haftar," Erdogan said.

Regime offensive devoid of fighting terrorism – US

Earlier on Wednesday, the US slammed the regime and its allies' stated reasoning for their ongoing campaign in Idlib province, denying any sort of interest on their part in fighting terrorism. 

"The Assad regime's interest in Idlib has nothing to do with fighting terrorists that are there, and everything to do with re-establishing control over territory and subjecting the civilian population there to the sort of brutality we’ve come to expect from that regime," Nathan Sales, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, told reporters.

"And the same goes for the Assad regime's outside enablers [Russia, Iran]. They're not concerned about fighting terrorists. They're concerned about re-establishing hegemony," he added.

David Schenker, the State Department's top official for the Middle East, told reporters that not only is the situation "atrocious," it is deliberate.

"This is intentional, and atrocities are being perpetrated. It’s an outrage,” he said alongside Sales.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies