Hezbollah leader says Israel turns attention to hitting missile-making sites in Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Wednesday that Israel is now concentrating its attacks in Syria on missile-manufacturing sites.

Israel has conducted many raids inside Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. It sees the presence of Hezbollah and its ally Iran there as a strategic threat.

The heavily armed Lebanese Shi’ite movement has played a vital role in the war, helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reclaim much of the country.

In rare comments on Israeli attacks in Syria, Nasrallah said that with Assad firmly in control, Israel has turned its attention more recently to striking Syrian targets for precision missile manufacturing seen as a threat.

He denied that Israeli airstrikes have pushed either Hezbollah or Iran to retreat from Syria, calling Israel’s insistence that they have done so “imaginary victories”.

Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in April that the Israeli military was working to drive Tehran out of Syria.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Jon Boyle and Angus MacSwan)

Russia-Turkey ceasefire broadly holds despite clashes in Syria’s Idlib

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Jonathan Spicer

AMMAN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Deadly clashes erupted in parts of northwest Syria on Friday but a ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey aimed at ending months of intense conflict was largely holding elsewhere in the country’s last rebel-held enclave.

A war monitor and rebel sources said the fighting broke out in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the south of Idlib province between Syrian government forces and jihadist insurgents of the Turkistan Islamic Party. Fifteen people were killed, the Syrian Observatory said.

Residents and opposition forces said the violence had abated elsewhere.

The clashes, while limited, underline the fragility of Thursday’s deal between Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and Turkey. Ankara supports rebel fighters but has less sway over hardline jihadists who control large parts of Idlib.

The ceasefire aims to contain a conflict that has displaced nearly a million people in three months in Idlib, which borders Turkey. But analysts and residents said they feared it would not hold in part because it did not address the humanitarian crisis nor air protection in any detail.

“The deal is a failure and a joke,” said Amar Ahmed, 32, a farmer who has been displaced for nearly two months and lives in a destroyed building. “We want to go back home, to our lands, and for the (Assad) regime to leave our home towns.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had vowed repeatedly in recent weeks to reverse advances by Assad’s forces in Idlib. However, Thursday’s deal froze the conflict along existing front lines, cementing significant gains by Syrian government forces.

“There may be criticism but our priority was for a ceasefire and we achieved it. Some goals were not reached but that goes for both sides,” a senior Turkish official said.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

The recent fighting sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has tried to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border. It already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Russia had repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring troops and equipment into Idlib since early last month. About 60 Turkish troops have been killed in that time.

The ceasefire deal establishes a security corridor stretching 6 km (3.7 miles) to the north and south of Idlib’s east-west M4 highway, where joint Russian-Turkish patrols will begin on March 15, effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into the province.

Several previous deals to end the fighting in Idlib have collapsed. The latest one did not detail a “safe zone” or describe how displaced people could return to their homes.

“Any ceasefire arrangement in Idlib, unless it has a no-fly zone dimension, is bound to fail. Deals in the past never de-escalated. They merely froze the crisis until the next escalation,” said Galip Dalay, IPC-Mercator fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Ahead of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Zagreb, Dutch minister Stef Blok said the ceasefire should be cemented with a no-fly zone to stop any further bombing of hospitals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped the deal “will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone”.

Erdogan said the sides would work together to supply aid to Syrians in need, but that Turkey retained the right to “respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

TENSE CALM

Residents and fighters in the region said the front lines – which have seen heavy air strikes by Russian and Syrian jets, and intense Turkish artillery and drone strikes – were largely quiet after the midnight ceasefire came into effect.

“There is a ceasefire but there are violations,” said Abdul Ghani al Sheikh, a rebel fighter from the Turkey-backed Failaq Sham rebel group. He said government forces were shelling Jabal al Zawya and Atareb, to the south and east of Idlib.

“But the situation overall is better. Everyone thinks this is all temporary and Turkish reinforcements are still coming,” he added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that the first eight hours of the ceasefire had passed with “relative calm”, and the skies had been free of Syrian government and Russian warplanes.

A Syrian state reporter, broadcasting from the town of Saraqeb recaptured by Syrian forces last week, said they were reinforcing positions at the front lines.

Naji Mustafa, spokesman for a coalition of rebel factions called the National Liberation Front, said government forces had violated the ceasefire with shelling and attempts to storm a front line, leaving little trust between the sides.

Ahmad Rahhal, a former general in Syria’s government forces who defected to the opposition, said: “There is no pullout, and where will the displaced go (who) would never accept going to (Assad) regime areas? What we have heard is not comforting.”

(Additional reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Samar Hassan in Cairo and Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Dominic Evans and Nick Tattersall)

Russia, Turkey agree ceasefire deal for Syria’s Idlib

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday in Syria’s Idlib region, their two leaders said after lengthy talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, standing next to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, said he hoped their agreement would lead to a halt of military action in Syria’s last rebel stronghold in the far northwest of the country.

“I express hope that these agreements will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone (and) stop the suffering of the peaceful population and the growing humanitarian crisis,” Putin said.

Erdogan told reporters the truce would come into effect at midnight on Thursday. “We will work together to supply aid for the Syrians in need,” he said, adding that Turkey retained the right “to respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing some rebel groups. They have in recent years reached several ceasefire deals in Idlib which have collapsed.

Russian air strikes have propelled an offensive by Assad’s forces in Idlib that sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanised division.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funnelled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border.

Russia also raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.

MORE DEATHS

The Kremlin said the two leaders had spoken for three hours on their own before being joined by their officials.

The two leaders also agreed to establish a secure corridor near the M4 highway, which runs east to west through Idlib, and hold joint patrols along the road from March 15.

In a joint statement read out by the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, the two sides said the corridor would stretch 6 km to the north and 6 km to the south of the M4 – effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into Idlib.

They said their defence ministers would agree on the parameters of the corridor within seven days.

The fighting, which has raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, has killed 60 Turkish troops in the region since last month, including the death of a Turkish soldier reported by a regional governor on Thursday.

Putin expressed his regret to Erdogan about the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an air strike, saying the Syrian military had not known of their location.

Ahead of the talks, at least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defence workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Two witnesses also reported seeing more Turkish military reinforcements deploying into Idlib, and Russia’s RIA news agency said rebels had resumed shelling the strategic town of Saraqeb in Idlib where Russian military police are based.

The Turkish defence ministry said it had destroyed four tanks, five rocket launchers and a dozen military vehicles in artillery and air strikes in the last 24 hours.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. Seeking to extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said last week it would no longer abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrey Ostroukh and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Syrian government forces reenter strategic town, Turkey vows to keep up strikes

By Orhan Coskun and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian government forces entered parts of a strategic rebel-held town on Monday, and Turkey said it would keep hitting President Bashar al-Assad’s troops after ramping up operations in its biggest intervention yet into the Syrian civil war.

Turkey and Russia, which have come closer than ever to direct confrontation in Syria in recent days, traded threats over air space after Turkish forces shot down two Syrian government warplanes and struck a military airport.

Fighting has escalated dramatically in recent days in northwest Syria, where Turkey has sent thousands of troops and military vehicles in the last month to counter Syrian government forces’ advances in the last remaining bastion held by rebels.

A million people have been displaced since December near Turkey’s southern border, causing what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis in nine years of war.

A Syrian state television correspondent in the town of Saraqeb said the army was combing the town after the retreat of Turkey-backed rebels. Rebel sources said clashes were continuing in western parts of the town. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said rebels were trying to regain control.

Saraqeb has already changed hands twice in less than a month, reflecting its importance as a gateway to the government-controlled northern city of Aleppo and to rebel-held Idlib city to the west.

Rebels said Turkish drones had been striking Syrian army positions on the Saraqeb frontline, hitting at least two rocket launchers.

Turkey, which has backed rebels fighting Assad for much of Syria’s nine-year civil war, stepped up its intervention in response to the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib last week, the deadliest strike against the Turkish army in decades.

On Sunday it shot down two Syrian planes in Idlib and struck at least one military airport in Aleppo province, taking the battle deep into territory controlled by forces loyal to Assad.

“The (Syrian) regime’s human and equipment losses are just the beginning,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara. “If they do not withdraw to the borders Turkey has determined as soon as possible, they will not have a head left on their shoulders.”

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces had so far destroyed eight helicopters, scores of tanks and five air defense systems.

Russia, for its part, said it could not guarantee the safety of Turkish aircraft over Syria, and Damascus said it was closing Syrian air space over the Idlib region.

HOPES FOR PUTIN TALKS

Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are due to meet in Moscow on Thursday to seek agreement on Idlib.

“We will go to Moscow to evaluate these developments with Mr Putin. My hope is that we take the necessary steps there, whether it is a ceasefire or any other steps needed,” Erdogan said.

Turkey has insisted it seeks no conflict with Moscow, but its barrage of strikes on the Russian-backed forces around Idlib have raised the risk of a direct confrontation.

“A solution is expected to emerge from the talks but attacks and attempts which the (Syrian) regime carries out in this period will not go unanswered,” a senior Turkish security official told Reuters.

Backed by Turkish shelling and drone strikes, rebels say they have now retaken several villages that they lost last week in the Syrian government offensive.

Erdogan demanded in early February that Syrian forces withdraw by the end of the month from a “de-escalation zone” around Idlib agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran in 2017, or face being driven back by the Turkish military.

“The (Syrian) regime will be forced to leave the de-escalation zone before the Putin-Erdogan meeting,” a senior Syrian opposition source said.

Already hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Ankara is determined to prevent any further influx of migrants from Syria.

Turkey opened its western borders on Friday to let migrants reach Europe, in an apparent move to demand EU support in Syria by repudiating a 2016 agreement to shut the frontier.

The European Union’s chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed sympathy with Turkey over the conflict in Syria, but said sending migrants to Europe cannot be the answer.

Turkey had shut the border in return for EU funds under a 2016 deal to end a crisis in which more than a million people entered Europe and 4,000 drowned in the Aegean Sea. On Monday, a child died after being pulled from the sea when a boat capsized off the Greek island of Lesbos, Greek officials said, the first reported fatality since Turkey re-opened its border last week.

Two Turkish security sources told Reuters a Syrian migrant also died from injuries on Monday after Greek security forces acted to stop migrants entering Greece by land. Athens denied the incident.

More than 1,000 migrants have arrived by sea on Greek islands since Sunday and more than 10,000 have attempted to cross by land at the border, where guards from both sides have fired tear gas into crowds caught in no-man’s land.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott in Brussels, Ezgi Erkoyun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey; Writing by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler; Editing by Alex Richardson and Peter Graff)

U.N. hears plea from women in northwest Syria: ‘We want the right to live’

By Michelle Nichols

(Reuters) – Amid heavy fighting in northwest Syria between government forces backed by Russia and Syrian rebels supported by Turkey, the U.N. Security Council heard a plea on Thursday from women caught in the middle: “All we are asking, is for the misery to stop, for the killing to stop. We want the right to live.”

The message was shared by deputy U.N. aid chief Ursula Mueller, who spoke via videolink to 14 Syrian women in Idlib and northern Aleppo last week.

“What is happening in northwest Syria, they said, is beyond imagination. It is not humanly tolerable. They told me of children so traumatized they no longer speak,” Mueller said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by Russian air power, have been fighting to retake the last large, rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war. Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Idlib region in an unprecedented incursion to back the rebels.

Nearly a million Syrians have fled over the last three months, the biggest exodus of the conflict. A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war.

Mueller and Henrietta Fore, executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, told the Security Council that hospitals, schools and camps for displaced families had been hit in recent fighting.

“We’ve heard and read reports of children freezing to death,” Fore said. “When wood runs out, families burn whatever they can find — plastic bags, garbage, discarded furniture — just to provide a flicker of heat against the cold, or a simple fire to cook whatever food they can find.”

Defending Moscow’s role in the conflict, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia questioned why the United Nations and aid groups weren’t more prepared to deal with millions of displaced people in Idlib during the winter.

“The humanitarian workers have plenty of resources so why hasn’t this problem been resolved?” he asked.

Britain’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Allen responded: “The answer is because they’re being bombed, they’re being shelled, they’re being attacked. It is extremely difficult indeed to provide assistance to people in those circumstances.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, said that to end the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria all efforts must be concentrated on establishing a durable and verifiable ceasefire.

“This will require Russia to ground its planes at once and tell the regime to pull back its forces,” she told the council.

However, Nebenzia said: “The only long-term solution to the problem of Idlib and … of Syria as a whole is a final and irreversible expulsion from the country of all terrorists. And please don’t tell us we’re exaggerating the problem.”

Both Mueller and Fore appealed for action from the council, which has long been divided on how to deal with Syria. Russia had vetoed 14 draft resolutions during the war.

“Millions of Syrian children are crying tonight – from hunger and cold, from wounds and pain, from fear, loss and heartbreak,” Fore said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

Battle rages over strategic Syrian town of Saraqeb as humanitarian catastrophe unfolds

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Daren Butler

AMMAN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces said on Thursday they had recaptured the crossroads town of Saraqeb, marking a first big push-back of a Syrian government offensive.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said developments were turning in Ankara’s favor, three weeks after the armed rebel opposition lost the northwestern town at the crossroads of two main highways to the Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

The Syrian army has pushed hard in recent months to retake the last large rebel-held region in northwestern Syria after nine years of war that has displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Syria’s Idlib province in an incursion to back the rebels against the offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Nearly a million Syrians have fled over the last three months, the biggest exodus of the war.

The United Nations said on Thursday the battle was having “catastrophic” humanitarian consequences, with the civilian death toll rising and schools and hospitals destroyed.

At least 134 civilians, including 44 children, had been killed in February alone, Najat Rochdi, the United Nations’ senior humanitarian adviser on northwest Syria, said in Geneva.

Seven children were among 11 people killed when an air strike hit a school in northern Idlib on Tuesday, she said.

Rochdi also reiterated a call by the United Nations Secretary-General for a ceasefire.

In Ankara, Erdogan said he would press on with the campaign as he announced that the death toll of the Turkish military forces in the region this month had risen to 21.

“Developments in Idlib have turned to our advantage. We have three martyrs, let them rest in peace. But on the other hand, the regime’s losses are very big,” he said in a speech.

“Our battle will continue. Our talks with the Russians continue,” he said. “If there was no support from Russia or Iran, it would be impossible for Assad to stand.”

Earlier, the Turkish-backed rebels said they made advances in Idlib.

“The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad’s gangs,” said Naji Mustafa, spokesman for a coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front.

A Russian military source cited by Russian news agencies denied that, saying Syrian government forces had successfully repelled a rebel attack on the town.

A Turkish official subsequently said Assad’s forces, backed by Russian warplanes, had launched an assault to take back Saraqeb. “There are violent clashes,” he told Reuters.

With Russian backing, government forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.

Government forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in southern Idlib and the adjoining province of Hama in the last three days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Rebels said heavy fighting was still raging in an area that the army, backed by Iranian-militias, had gained in new advances which the war monitor said had secured for the pro-government forces control of all of southern Idlib.

Opposition sources said a counter-offensive was underway.

TURKEY-RUSSIA TALKS FALTER

The push on Saraqeb comes before an end-of-February deadline set by Erdogan for Assad’s forces to pull back from territory that Ankara says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.

Erdogan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back and the spokesman of his AK Party, Omer Celik, said on Thursday preparations were complete.

“When the time given to the regime to withdraw expires, the Turkish Armed Forces will carry out their duties based on the orders they receive and nobody should doubt our determination about this,” Celik said.

Celik said work on a date for a meeting between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Idlib was till ongoing. Turkish and Russian officials were holding a second day of talks in Ankara on Thursday. Two previous rounds in Ankara and Moscow have not yielded tangible progress.

As well as sending troops, tanks and artillery into the region across its border, Ankara has set up new outposts in what rebels say is preparation for a Turkish operation.

A senior opposition figure in touch with Turkey’s military said the Turkish-backed campaign would continue until the Syrian army was expelled from the buffer zone, and only then would serious negotiations begin over a settlement.

Turkey, which has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot handle another influx and has closed the border. Some migrants have made homes along the border wall, using it to prop up tents and shelters.

Ibrahim al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with the rebel factions, said Saraqeb’s seizure eased pressure on rebels, who in recent days lost significant territory in southern Idlib province and Jabal al Zawiya highlands.

Saraqeb is at the crossroads of two highways linking the capital of Damascus, Syria’s second largest city Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.

Taking back the M5 highway, which goes south to Damascus, had marked a big gain for Assad’s forces as they restored state control over the route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years of conflict.

U.N. adviser Rochdi said air strikes and shelling were affecting dozens of communities and villages in Idlib and Hama, and 11 medical facilities and 15 schools had been hit this month.

“There are reports of multiple children freezing to death. The needs of civilians in the northwest are exceeding the humanitarian response capacity,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Andrey Kuzmin and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Syrian forces consolidate control of Aleppo, air strikes under way

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian army said on Monday it had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside and it would press on with its campaign to wipe out militant groups “wherever they are found”.

The advances were made after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces drove insurgents from the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, reopening the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years in a big strategic gain for Assad.

Assad said on Monday his forces’ rapid recent gains presaged the eventual defeat of the nine-year insurgency that sought to oust him from power. But in an appearance televised by state media, he also cautioned that the conflict was not yet over.

“We know this liberation does not mean the end of the war or the crushing of all plots or the end of terror or the surrender of the enemy, but it definitely rubs their noses in the dirt,” Assad said. “This is a prelude to their (opposition forces’) final defeat, sooner or later.”

Backed by heavy Russian air strikes and aided by pro-Iranian militias, government forces have intensified since the start of the year their campaign to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province in the far northwest of Syria where anti-Assad insurgents hold their last strongholds.

Russian and government air strikes on Monday hit Darat Izza, near the Turkish border about 30 km (20 miles) north of Aleppo city, wounding several civilians and forcing two hospitals to close, according to hospital staff.

Witnesses also reported air strikes in southern areas of Idlib province in what the opposition said was a “scorched earth policy” that has left dozens of towns and villages in ruins.

The advances sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey in the biggest single displacement of the nine-year-old war.

The United Nations said on Monday that over 875,000 Syrians, mostly children and women, have now fled towns and villages targeted by the heavy aerial bombing campaign since Dec. 1.

More than 40,000 have been displaced in the last four days alone from western Aleppo province, the scene of heavy fighting, said David Swanson, a U.N. spokesman.

The offensive has also upset the fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict.

Turkey and Russia began a new round of talks in Moscow on Monday after several demands by Ankara that Assad’s forces should back down and a ceasefire be put in place.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Islamist militant attacks on Russian bases and Syrian positions have continued and “it is not possible to leave this unanswered”.

“Troops from Russia and Turkey on the ground in Syria, in Idlib, are in constant contact with each other, looking at changes in the conditions. They have a full understanding of each other,” said Lavrov.

However, the Syrian armed forces said they would push on with what they called their “sacred and noble task to rid what remains of terrorist organizations wherever on Syria’s geography they are found”.

Syrian forces had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside, they said in a statement.

Syrian Transport Minister Ali Hammoud announced on Monday the reopening of Aleppo international airport with the first flight, from Damascus to Aleppo, scheduled for Wednesday and flights to Cairo to be announced within days, state news agency SANA reported.

The pro-Damascus Al-Watan newspaper said the M5 highway, a vital artery in northern Syria, would be ready for civilian use by the end of the week. Aleppo city, once Syria’s economic hub, was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war between 2012 and 2016.

The Syrian army has also opened the international roadway from northern Aleppo to the towns of Zahraa and Nubl toward the Turkish border, a military news service run by Lebanon’s Assad-allied pro-Damascus Hezbollah group said.

The insurgent forces arrayed against Assad include Western-backed rebels and jihadist militants.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his military will drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw from Idlib by the end of the month. On Saturday, he appeared to move that date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the month if there was no pullback.

Alarmed by the new refugee crisis on its border, Turkey has sent thousands of troops and hundreds of convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Tom Perry, Khalil Ashawi and Suleiman Khalidi, additional reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow; Editing by Angus MacSwan/Mark Heinrich)

Cold, disease threaten more than half a million Syrians fleeing Idlib fighting

By Khalil Ashawi

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Cold weather, disease and a lack of shelter and medicine threaten hundreds of thousands of civilians as they flee fighting in Idlib province, in one of the biggest upheavals of Syria’s nine-year civil war, aid groups and doctors said.

The migrants, their numbers swelling by the day, are trapped between advancing Syrian government forces, keen to crush the last significant opposition stronghold, and Turkey’s closed border.

Some are having to flee by foot, while many others are having to sleep in their cars, as Syrian and Russian warplanes bombard the highways leading north toward Turkey.

A U.N. official appealed for emergency financial assistance to help an estimated 800,000 people in northwest Syria to survive the coming months.

“People are facing a tragedy. For the last two weeks it’s been very, very cold. There is rain and mud, and influenza is spreading,” said Wassim Zakaria, a doctor who works in a clinic in Idlib city that closed on Monday due to heavy bombardment.

The numbers on the move have increased in recent days as the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad advanced to within 8 km (5 miles) of Idlib city, said Selim Tosun, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media adviser in Syria.

“If the cold weather continues…there is a risk of epidemics as a large migrant flow is coming,” he said.

Since November, 692,000 people have abandoned towns south of Idlib city, Tosun said. The number “is rising every hour” and could reach 1 million, he added.

Zakaria said people had also started to flee from Idlib city but their options for shelter were limited, with people forced to sleep in cars or tents, many near the walled-off border which prevents Syrians taking refuge in Turkey.

“It’s like people are imprisoned here. Last week women and children demonstrated at the border, asking to be allowed across,” he said.

Turkey’s IHH is distributing urgent aid and blankets to those traveling on the highway from Idlib city and has set up 2,000 tents, with plans to put up another 1,500, Tosun said.

Some 700 breeze-block dwellings have also been built out of a total 10,000 which Turkey is planning to erect in the region south of its border, he said.

He added that many people were now seeking shelter beyond Idlib province, already home to waves of civilians displaced earlier in Syria’s civil war, and were heading toward Afrin and Azaz, areas just to the northeast under the control of Turkish-led Syrian rebel forces.

AID APPEAL

David Swanson, U.N. regional spokesperson for the Syria crisis, said $336 million was urgently needed to help those being displaced, with shelter a critical problem.

“This crisis continues to deteriorate by the minute. This is easily one of the largest waves of displacements since the (Syrian civil war) began in March 2011,” Swanson said.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are in now in urgent need of critical, life-saving assistance,” he said.

The United Nations has put the number of displaced from the Idlib fighting since Dec. 1 at 520,000, with a further 280,000 seen at “imminent risk of displacement”.

Many of the displaced are staying with host communities who themselves are struggling to cope, while others have sought shelter in schools or mosques, or are sleeping in their vehicles or in the open air, said Swanson.

“The humanitarian situation in Syria is more catastrophic than ever before. Who would have imagined that entire cities would be displaced in a single month?” said Atef Nanou, manager of Molham Volunteering Team, a relief group in northern Syria.

He said he had encountered families unable to get away from the bombing because they couldn’t afford fuel for their car or transportation costs.

“So they either stayed despite the bombing or went out on foot on the international road that the Syrian regime and Russian warplanes are bombing around the clock,” Nanou added.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler in Istanbul and Eric Knecht in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Turkey, Russia can tackle Syria escalation ‘without anger’: Erdogan

By Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday Turkey and Russia should resolve differences over the conflict in Syria’s Idlib without anger, after a deadly flare-up in violence challenged the fragile cooperation between Moscow and Ankara.

The two countries support opposing sides in Syria’s nearly nine-year war, as well as in Libya’s escalating conflict, but have worked together to contain some of the bloodshed and have forged close defense ties in recent years.

An attack by Russian-backed Syrian government forces that killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday posed the biggest challenge to Russian-Turkish ties since their 2018 deal to stem fighting in Syria’s northwest Idlib region.

Erdogan told Russian forces on Monday there to “stand aside” while Turkey struck dozens of targets in retaliation. Moscow and Ankara then argued about whether Turkey had told Russia it was sending waves of reinforcements into Idlib.

“There is no need for us to be engaged in a conflict or a serious contradiction with Russia at this stage,” he was quoted as telling reporters on a flight from Ukraine.

“We will of course sit down and discuss everything. Not with anger, though. Because those who sit down with anger, get up with losses,” Erdogan added.

Russia supports President Bashar al-Assad in the war in Syria while Turkey backs rebels who once aimed to topple him.

Analysts said the relationship should survive the testy spell even while risks remained on the ground in Syria. Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees, fears Russian air strikes and a recent northward surge by Syrian troops threaten to send millions more refugees towards its border.

A Turkish security official said clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces continued intermittently on Tuesday around Saraqeb, a town 15 km (9 miles) east of Idlib city.

“Now we see more clearly the limits of the Turkey-Russia cooperation in Syria…and the question is have we reached a different level of escalation” given the attacks on Turkish troops, said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who chairs the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

NO “PERMANENT BREAK”

But “this episode is not going to lead to a permanent break between Ankara and Moscow. They will find ways to overcome this… because both sides continue to rely on each other” to contain the situation in Idlib, he said.

Turkey’s foreign minister told his Russian counterpart to rein in Syrian forces and again warned of retaliation against provocative attacks on Turkish observation posts in Idlib set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran.

“We also don’t accept the excuse of ‘we cannot fully control the regime’ here,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said of Russia.

The Turkish security official said Ankara had no plans to withdraw from its 12 observation posts in the area, even though some are now surrounded by Syrian government forces.

Moscow says it is concerned about attacks by militants who control Idlib, Syria’s last remaining major rebel stronghold.

Konstantin Kosachev, a senior Russian lawmaker, called the heightened fighting a “serious test of the strength of the existing Russian-Turkish agreements” in both Idlib and in northeast Syria, where the two countries have jointly patrolled.

The Idlib violence has accelerated in recent months despite several ceasefire efforts, including as recently as January.

United Nations regional spokesman David Swanson said 520,000 people had been displaced since the beginning of December and the numbers could swell further.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Ankara and Eric Knecht in Beirut; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen and Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Erdogan says Turkey hits back after Syrian shells kill Turkish troops

By Orhan Coskun and Daren Butler

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey said on Monday it struck dozens of Syrian government targets after five of its soldiers were killed in northwest Syria’s Idlib region, an incident that could test ties between Moscow and Ankara.

President Tayyip Erdogan said initial indications showed 30-35 Syrians were “neutralized” in Turkey’s response to what it called intense shelling of its soldiers in Idlib, the last major Syrian rebel stronghold after nearly nine years of war.

Turkey has reinforced Idlib, which lies just across its southern border with Syria, in a challenge to Damascus and its Russian backers.

Erdogan said Turkey had told Russian counterparts “they need to stand aside” in the escalating conflict, in which Ankara and Moscow back opposing sides.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Turkish military units came under fire overnight after moving within Idlib without notifying Russia, contradicting Ankara’s claim that it coordinated movements.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, have made large advances in Idlib, prompting Turkey to warn it may launch a military operation there unless the fighting is halted.

Rebels fighting to oust Assad, some of whom have been backed by Turkey, have also launched counter-attacks against the territorial gains by Assad’s forces.

“We have responded in kind to these attacks and will continue to do so, whether it is with our artillery or mortars,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul.

“We are determined to continue our operations for the security of our country, people and our brothers in Idlib,” he said before a flight to Kiev. “Those who question our determination will soon understand they made a mistake.”

A Turkish security official told Reuters the shelling that killed the soldiers occurred in the area of Saraqeb, a town 15 km (9 miles) to the east of Idlib city. Saraqeb lies at the junction of two main roads that Damascus seeks to fully control.

“Following the developments in Idlib in recent weeks, serious support was provided over the weekend to the troops, equipment and vehicles in the region,” the official said.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria, fears a fresh wave of migrants from Idlib. It has 12 military observation posts around the region, set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran.

Several of them have since been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces. A spokesman for Erdogan’s AK Party said on Monday Turkey will view Syrian government forces around its posts as “targets”.

Erdogan accuses Russia of violating a 2017 “de-escalation” agreement to reduce fighting in the region, a charge Moscow denied on Friday.

REINFORCEMENTS

“Units of Turkish troops made movements inside the de-escalation zone … without notifying the Russian side, and came under fire from Syrian government forces on terrorists in the area to the west of Saraqib,” Russia’s defense ministry said.

The Syrian Observatory, a UK-based war monitor, said 13 members of the Syrian government forces were killed in Turkish shelling, even while a Syrian state TV correspondent said there had been no casualties among its government forces.

On Sunday the Observatory said some 320 Turkish trucks and military vehicles entered Idlib at Kafr Lusin crossing on Sunday, much more than usual, and went south.

Turkey’s defense ministry said Syrian shelling was carried out against its reinforcements, which were meant to prevent clashes in Idlib, despite prior coordination of their positions.

Erdogan said if talks between diplomats and generals fail to get results he will contact Russian President Vladimir Putin directly to try to resolve the situation.

“We told especially Russian counterparts that they are not our counterparts here, that it is the (Syrian) regime directly, and that they need to stand aside,” Erdogan said. “This is not okay, we are giving martyrs here, but our armed forces and our artillery … are keeping them under fire.”

He added F-16s are involved in Turkey’s operation against 40 points in Idlib.

However, the Russian defense ministry said Turkish planes did not violate Syria’s border and no air strikes on Syrian troops were recorded.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)