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)

Cold and humiliated, Syrians displaced yet again by new Assad campaign

IDLIB, Syria (Reuters) – Khaled Sabri and his family huddle in the makeshift shelter in northern Idlib, still shell-shocked after fleeing the sudden bombardment of their rebel-held town earlier this week.

They are part of an exodus that has shaken northwest Syria, the last rebel redoubt in the country’s nine-year civil war, as hundreds of thousands push toward Turkey to escape a sudden and fast-moving advance by government forces.

Backed by heavy Russian airstrikes, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have recaptured dozens of towns since last Friday in a major campaign that has stoked tensions between Ankara and Moscow and raised the specter of a new refugee crisis.

A view of the trucks carrying belongings of displaced Syrians, in northern Idlib, Syria January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

“We fled with just the clothes we were wearing because of the heavy bombing,” said 55-year-old Sabri. His city Maarat al-Numan, the second biggest in Idlib, was re-captured on Tuesday in a major milestone for Assad’s stated goal of reclaiming all of Syria.

At the camp outside Maarat Misrin, a northern Idlib town about 20 km (12 miles) south of the Turkish frontier, dozens of families sheltered in plastic white tents, many unsure of where they would wind up.

Jennah, 10, said it was the second time her family had been displaced. Like many others, they had sought refuge in Idlib after being ousted from other areas earlier in the war.

“I was forcibly displaced from eastern Ghouta, and then we went to Maarat al-Numan and the Syrian regime launched a military campaign on Maarat al-Numan, so we came here.”

A United Nations report on Thursday estimated that 390,000 people have fled northwest Syria from Dec. 1-Jan. 27, 80% of them women and children.

Moscow and Damascus say they are fighting jihadist militants who have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo in northern Syria, but rights groups and rescue workers say air strikes and shelling have demolished hospitals, schools and homes.

Turkey, which fears a fresh wave of migrants piling into it territory, adding to the more than 3.6 million Syrians already there, said on Friday it would not tolerate new threats near its border and would act militarily if needed.

Trucks crowded with civilians’ furniture, mattresses and rugs were seen on Friday hauling out of towns across much of Idlib and western Aleppo, another area of northern Syria hit hard over the past week.

“Today we are homeless, humiliated, oppressed and cold. We want to be returned to our homes and towns,” said a woman who called herself Um Abdallah, or Abdullah’s mother, 30, from Maarat al-Numan.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Idlib; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.N. says around 350,0000 people have fled Syria’s Idlib since Dec. 1

AMMAN (Reuters) – Around 350,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, have been displaced by a renewed Russian-backed offensive in the opposition-held Idlib province since early December, and have sought shelter in border areas near Turkey, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its latest situation report that the humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate as a result of the “escalating” hostilities.

Russian jets and Syrian artillery have pounded towns and villages in recent weeks in a renewed assault backed by pro-Iranian militias that aimed at clearing the opposition.

“This latest wave of displacement compounds an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground in Idlib,” David Swanson, Amman-based U.N. regional spokesman for Syria, told Reuters.

Russian and Syrian jets resumed bombing of civilian areas in the opposition enclave two days after a ceasefire agreed between Turkey and Russia formally took effect on Sunday.

U.N. officials said earlier this month the humanitarian crisis had worsened with thousands of civilians on the run in Idlib province on top of close to 400,000 people who fled earlier bouts of fighting to the safety of camps near the Turkish border.

The latest offensive has brought the Russian-steered military campaign closer to heavily populated parts of Idlib province, where nearly 3 million people are trapped, according to the United Nations.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Erdogan says up to 250,000 Syrians flee toward Turkey as crisis worsens

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday up to 250,000 migrants were fleeing toward Turkey from Syria’s northwest Idlib region after weeks of renewed bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces.

Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, and Erdogan said it was taking steps with some difficulty to prevent another wave from crossing its border.

With winter worsening an escalating crisis, the United Nations has said some 284,000 people had fled their homes as of Monday. Up to 3 million people live in Idlib, the last rebel-held swathe of territory after Syria’s nearly nine year civil war.

“Right now, 200,000 to 250,000 migrants are moving toward our borders,” Erdogan told a conference in Ankara. “We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it’s not easy. It’s difficult, they are humans too.”

Towns and villages have been pounded by Russian jets and Syrian artillery since a renewed government assault last month, despite a deal agreed last September by the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran to ease tensions.

At least eight people, including five children, were killed on Wednesday in on Idlib town when the Syrian army launched missiles that struck a shelter for displaced families, witnesses and residents said.

In a report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the city of Maarat al-Numan and the surrounding countryside “are reportedly almost empty.”

“Displacement during winter is further exacerbating the vulnerability of those affected. Many who fled are in urgent need of humanitarian support, particularly shelter, food, health, non-food and winterization assistance,” the OCHA said.

It said those displaced in December were fleeing toward Turkey, other parts of northern Idlib or toward other areas in northern Syria such as Afrin and al-Bab that Turkey seized in previous cross-border military operations.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to recapture Idlib. Turkey has for years backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad.

Erdogan said last month his country could not handle a fresh wave of migrants from Syria, warning Europe that it will feel the impact of such an influx if the bombing is not stopped.

Moscow and Damascus both deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they are fighting al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants. However, their advances also pile pressure on Turkey, which has 12 military posts in the area.

On Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said it was out of the question for Turkey to evacuate its observation posts in Idlib.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Daren Butler and Jonathan Spicer)

Turkish aid group says 120,000 fleeing attacks in Syria’s Idlib

Turkish aid group says 120,000 fleeing attacks in Syria’s Idlib
By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The number of Syrians fleeing attacks in the country’s northwestern Idlib province and heading toward Turkey has reached 120,000, a Turkish aid group said on Monday, adding it was setting up a camp for some of those uprooted.

Syrian and Russian forces have recently intensified their bombardment of targets in Idlib, which Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture, prompting a wave of refugees toward Turkey.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday Turkey cannot handle a fresh wave of migrants, warning that European countries will feel the impact of such an influx if violence in Syria’s northwest is not stopped.

“In the last week, the number of people fleeing from the southern regions (of Idlib) to the north because of the increasing attacks has reached 120,000,” said Selim Tosun, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media advisor in Syria.

Erdogan said on Sunday 80,000 people were currently on the move. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said 40,000 civilians had been displaced since Thursday, the start of the latest military operation.

Many of the migrants fled the city of Maraat al-Numan, with some going to camps near the Turkish border, while others have gone to stay with relatives or to the areas of Afrin and Azaz near the Turkish border, the IHH’s Tosun said.

The IHH said it had begun distributing 20,000 packages of food prepared for the migrants between the city of Idlib and the town of Sarmada. It was also preparing a tent camp in the area of Killi, a village some 13 km (8 miles) from the Turkish border.

Tosun said the camp for families will have 500 tents and can expand.

Turkey currently hosts some 3.7 million displaced Syrians, the largest refugee population in the world, after 8-1/2 years of civil war in Syria. Ankara fears another wave from the Idlib region, where up to 3 million Syrians live in the last significant rebel-held swathe of territory.

A Turkish delegation was traveling to Moscow on Monday for talks which were expected to focus in part on Syria and which Erdogan had said would determine Turkey’s course of action in the region.

Turkey has backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad in the war, while Russia and Iran support Assad’s forces.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

Strikes on Syrian medical facilities appear deliberate: U.N.

Strikes on Syrian medical facilities appear deliberate: U.N.
By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 60 medical facilities have been hit in Syria’s Idlib province in the past six months, including four this week, and appear to have been deliberately targeted by government-affiliated forces, a U.N. rights spokesman said on Friday.

Idlib in Syria’s northwest, the target of a Russian-backed offensive launched this summer to capture it and surrounding areas, is part of the last major rebel bastion in Syria’s 8 1/2-year war.

Since April 29, 61 medical facilities have been hit there, including some that were struck several times, U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told journalists.

“We can’t determine if every single attack is deliberate but the large scale of these attacks…strongly suggests that government-affiliated forces conducting these strikes are, at least partly, if not wholly, deliberately striking health facilities,” he said at a Geneva news briefing.

“They can’t possibly all be accidents,” he told Reuters later. He said that, if it is proven that any or some of these were deliberate, they would amount to war crimes.

Damage was reported at the Kafr Nobol hospital on Nov. 6 – which had also been hit in May and July – and two air strikes also directly hit the al-Ikhlas hospital in southern Idlib, incapacitating it this week, Colville said.

Pressure is building for an investigation into attacks on Syrian hospitals amid allegations that hundreds have taken place over the course of the 8-1/2 year conflict.

The United Nations passes on information provided by NGOs about the location of medical facilities along with other data to parties to the conflict. The aim of this is to avoid attacks on such facilities, which are protected under international humanitarian law, but it has been criticized as a means of facilitating exactly the opposite.

Syria’s war has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and forced 13 million people from their homes, half of whom have left their wrecked country.

Since a Turkish-led offensive across Syria’s northern border a month ago to push out Kurdish YPG fighters, at least 92 civilians have been killed in northern and northeastern Syria, Colville added.

That offensive displaced 200,000 people, of whom nearly half of them remain displaced are dispersed across camps and shelters, Najat Rochdi, Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, said on Friday.

A U.N.-backed panel met for the first time in Geneva this week, with delegates from the government, opposition and civil society, in what the United Nations says is an important step on the long road to political rapprochement in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Marina Depetris; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. accuses Syrian government of chemical weapon attack in May in Idlib

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, U.S. September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that the United States had concluded the government of President Bashir al-Assad in Syria had used chlorine as a chemical weapon in an attack in May during a battle with insurgents in Idlib.

“The Assad regime is responsible for innumerable atrocities some of which rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Pompeo told a news conference in New York, where he has been attending the United Nations General Assembly.

“Today I am announcing that the United States has concluded that the Assad regime used chlorine as a chemical weapon on May 19,” Pompeo said.

The United States said in May it had received numerous reports that appeared consistent with chemical exposure after an attack by Syrian government forces in northwest Syria, but it had made no definitive conclusion as to whether they used chemical weapons.

The Trump administration has twice bombed Syria over Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons, in April 2017 and April 2018.

The United States, Britain and France launched airstrikes in April 2018 against what they described as three Syrian chemical weapons targets in retaliation for a suspected gas attack that killed scores of people in a Damascus suburb earlier that month.

Assad launched an offensive at the end of April this year on Idlib and parts of adjacent provinces, saying insurgents had broken a truce.

“This is different in some sense because it was chlorine… but know that President Trump has been pretty vigorous in protecting the world from the use of chemical weapons,” Pompeo said, said declining to say what the U.S. response could be.

Pompeo said Washington had also added sanctions on two Russian entities for providing fuel to the Syrian government. Russia supports Assad in the more than eight-year-long Syrian war.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by John Irish; editing by Grant McCool)

Assad hits a wall in Syrian war as front lines harden – analysis

FILE PHOTO: A man with a gun holds the hand of a child as they walk in a souk in the city of Idlib, Syria May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad’s assault in the northwest has been met with a painful rebel counterpunch that underlines Turkish resolve to keep the area out of his hands and shows why he will struggle to take back more of Syria by force.

More than two months of Russian-backed operations in and around Idlib province have yielded little or nothing for Assad’s side. It marks a rare case of a military campaign that has not gone his way since Russia intervened in 2015.

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watch tower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watch tower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

While resisting government attacks, the insurgents have managed to carve out small advances of their own, drawing on ample stocks of guided anti-tank missiles that opposition and diplomatic sources say have been supplied by Turkey.

“They’re even targeting personnel with these missiles … it means they are comfortably supplied,” a rebel source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing rebel military capabilities. Turkey’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on reports that Ankara has stepped supplies of arms to rebels.

With Turkey committed to the rebels, the battle for the northwest stands in stark contrast to a campaign in the southwest a year ago, when Western and Arab states stood by as Assad and his Russian- and Iranian-backed allies took the area.

Despite Russian backing in the latest fighting, questions have arisen over whether Assad and his allies are entirely on the same page when it comes to the northwest, where Turkey has deployed forces in agreement with Russia and Iran.

Moscow has appeared keen to preserve its ties with Ankara even as its air force bombs in support of Assad: Turkey says Russia has intervened to stop attacks on Turkish forces from Syrian government-held territory.

And this time there has been no sign of a major role for Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces that have helped Assad to victories in parts of Syria that are of greater interest to Iran, including territory near Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

The capture of the southwest a year ago remains Assad’s last big gain. The prospects of further advances have been obstructed not only by Turkish interests in the northwest but also the presence of U.S. forces in the east and northeast.

American troops are still supporting Kurdish-led fighters following a reversal of President Donald Trump’s decision last December to pull them all out.

After more than eight years of war, this leaves Syria carved up into areas of U.S., Russian, Turkish and Iranian influence that seem unlikely to be stitched back together any time soon.

“We could see the front lines harden and remain like that for some time, where either the appetite or capability to fight through them is not there on the part of the regime or its allies,” said a Western diplomat speaking anonymously in order to offer a candid assessment.

“BONE-BREAKING BATTLE”

The Idlib area is dominated by Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadists formerly known as the Nusra Front. Proscribed as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council, the group has set aside past conflict with Turkish-backed rebels to defend the northwest.

Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Izza rebel group, said coordination among rebels was a major factor in foiling government attacks.

“I expect the battles to continue for a time because it has become a bone-breaking battle,” he said in written answers to questions from Reuters.

The government campaign of airstrikes and barrel bombing that began in late April was followed by the capture of around 20 villages. This led to a rebel counter-attack in early June that seized ground the government has been unable to recover.

The Syrian government has described its operations as a response to militant violations of ceasefire agreements.

Russia says action was needed to stop attacks from being launched from Idlib, including drone strikes on its nearby airbase. President Vladimir Putin said in April a full-scale operation in Idlib was impractical for now.

Though the government has not declared the goals of the campaign, rebel sources believe it was to capture two highways that pass through rebel-held territory.

Some 300,000 people fleeing bombardment have moved toward the Turkish border since April, prompting the United Nations to warn that Idlib was on the brink of a “humanitarian nightmare”.

For Ankara, the Syrian opposition’s last major state sponsor, preventing another major influx of Syrian refugees is of paramount importance: Turkey already hosts 3.6 million of them.

While accusing the Syrian government of targeting civilians and its military observation posts in the Idlib area, Turkey has stopped short of blaming Russia, instead saying it would continue to cooperate with Moscow over the northwest.

The Turkish foreign ministry, in a written response to questions from Reuters, also said “necessary messages have been sent to Russian officials to end the attacks on our observation points and civilians” in the Idlib area.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed, as have many fighters on both sides, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman described the operation as “a failure on all levels” for Russia and Damascus.

A Russian private military contractor who was based near Idlib province told Reuters that rebel fighters there are far more professional and motivated than their adversary. Pro-government forces cannot win the battle for Idlib unless Moscow helps them on the ground, he said.

A second Western diplomat said the government had suffered heavy casualties for minimal gains, which was “deeply embarrassing”. “Turkey is trying to tell them ‘you cannot take this militarily. You have to negotiate’,” the diplomat said.

A regional source close to Damascus described the escalation since April as a limited confrontation, saying Russia’s ties with Turkey were the main brake on any full-scale assault to take the entire northwest.

“Of course the regime has the desire to recover Idlib by force, but … without the Russians it can’t, because there are many militants and the Russians are completely committed to the Turks,” the source said. “It is expected that the situation in Idlib will stay as it is for a long time.”

 

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun, Zeynep Arica and Ece Toksabay in Turkey, Laila Bassam in Beirut and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Scores poisoned in Aleppo gas attack, Syria and Russia blame rebels

A woman breathes through an oxygen mask after what the Syrian state media said was a suspected toxic gas attack in Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – More than 100 people were wounded in Syria’s Aleppo late on Saturday in a suspected toxic gas attack which the government and its ally, Russia, blamed on insurgents.

A health official in Aleppo said victims suffered breathing difficulties, eye inflammation and other symptoms suggesting the use of chlorine gas. Rebel officials denied the allegations and said their forces did not possess chemical weapons.

Russia’s defense ministry said on Sunday its warplanes bombed militants in the insurgent stronghold of Idlib who it accused of firing poison gas at Aleppo.

Major-General Igor Konashenkov said Moscow sent advance warning to Ankara, which backs some rebel factions and helped broker a ceasefire in Idlib.

A monitoring group said air strikes hit rebel territory in northwest Syria on Sunday for the first time since Russia and Turkey agreed to a buffer zone there in September.

In Aleppo city, which the government controls, the shells had spread a strong stench and caused breathing problems, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said.

State news agency SANA said on Sunday 107 people were injured, including children, after militants hit three districts with projectiles containing gases that caused choking.

It marks the highest such casualty toll in Aleppo since government forces and their allies clawed back the city from rebels nearly two years ago.

“We can not know the kinds of gases but we suspected chlorine and treated patients on this basis because of the symptoms,” Zaher Batal, the head of the Aleppo Doctors Syndicate, told Reuters.

Hospitals had discharged many people overnight. Batal said this was the first gas attack against civilians in the city since the conflict erupted more than seven years ago.

People stand in front of a hospital after what the Syrian state media said was a suspected toxic gas attack in Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

People stand in front of a hospital after what the Syrian state media said was a suspected toxic gas attack in Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

STRETCHERS AND OXYGEN MASKS

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and his Russian counterpart agreed on Sunday that “recent provocations” were aimed at harming the agreement on Idlib, the ministry said.

“There was an exchange of views to the effect that … they could continue and that one needed to be ready for them,” the ministry said in a statement.

Nobody has claimed the Aleppo attack so far.

“The explosive (shells) contain toxic gases that led to choking among civilians,” the city’s police chief Issam al-Shilli told state media.

Pictures and footage on SANA showed medical workers carrying patients on stretchers and helping them with oxygen masks.

Syria’s foreign ministry urged the U.N. Security Council to condemn and punish the attack.

Abdel-Salam Abdel-Razak, an official from the Nour el-Din al-Zinki insurgent faction, said rebels did not own chemical weapons or have the capacity to produce them.

Abu Omar, a Failaq al-Sham spokesman, accused Damascus of trying to create “a malicious charade” as a pretext to attack rebel towns.

The UK-based Observatory said government shelling earlier on Saturday had killed two women and seven children in a village in Idlib.

The Russian-Turkish deal in September for a demilitarized zone staved off an army offensive against the Idlib region, including nearby parts of Aleppo and Hama provinces.

The dominant force among an array of factions holding sway in Idlib is Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist alliance led by fighters formerly linked to al-Qaeda.

A past U.N.-OPCW inquiry found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in 2017 and also used chlorine several times. It also blamed Islamic State for using mustard gas.

Damascus has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the war.

No rebel group has been confirmed to have used chemical weapons in the war by the by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Syria’s Idlib spared attack, Turkey to send in more troops

FILE PHOTO: People inspect the damage at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-held city of Idlib, Syria February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Tulay Karadeniz and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Turkey will send more troops into Syria’s Idlib province after striking a deal with Russia that has averted a government offensive and delighted rebels who say it keeps the area out of President Bashar al-Assad’s hands.

The deal unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Monday will create a new demilitarized zone from which “radical” rebels must withdraw by the middle of next month.

Damascus also welcomed the agreement but vowed to continue its efforts to recover “every inch” of Syria. Iran, Assad’s other main ally, said “responsible diplomacy” had averted a war in Idlib “with a firm commitment to fight extremist terror”.

The agreement has put a halt to a threatened Syrian government offensive. The United Nations had warned such an attack would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the Idlib region, home to about 3 million people.

The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represents the opposition’s last big foothold in Syria. Assad has recovered most of the areas once held by the rebels, with decisive military support from Iran and Russia.

But his plans to recover the northwest have been complicated by Turkey’s role on the ground: it has soldiers at 12 locations in Idlib and supplies weapons to some of the rebels.

Erdogan had feared another exodus of refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey and warned against any attack.

In striking the deal, Russia appears – at least for now – to have put its ties with Turkey ahead of advancing the goal of bringing all Syria back under Assad’s rule.

Analysts cautioned that implementation of the deal faced big challenges, notably how to separate jihadists from other rebels – a goal Ankara has been struggling to achieve for some time.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the “moderate opposition” would keep its weapons and the “region will be cleared of radicals”. Turkey would “make additional troop deployments” and its 12 observation posts would remain.

The deal was “very important for the political resolution in Syria”. “If this (Idlib) had been lost too, there would be no opposition anymore,” he said.

Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army (FSA) official, told Reuters the deal “buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria”. The spokesman for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission expressed hope that a government offensive was now off the table for good

Yahya al-Aridi told Reuters by telephone it was a “victory for the will for life over the will for death”.

The Syrian government, in a statement published by state media, said it welcomed any agreement that spared blood. It also said the deal had a specific timeframe which it did not detail.

“I see it as a test of the extent of Turkey’s ability to implement this decision,” Ali Abdul Karim, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, said in an interview with Lebanon’s al-Jadeed TV. “We do not trust Turkey … but it’s useful for Turkey to be able to carry out this fight to rid these groups from their weapons.”

“CATASTROPHE” AVERTED

Moscow said the deal “confirmed the ability of both Moscow and Ankara to compromise … in the interests of the ultimate goal of a Syrian settlement by political and diplomatic means”.

The European Union said the agreement must protect civilians and allow aid access.

Germany welcomed the deal but noted that past deals in Syria had not been implemented. “Anything that helps to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib is good,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said during a visit to Romania.

The demilitarized zone will be monitored by Russian and Turkish forces, the countries’ leaders said.

But neither Russia nor Turkey have explained how they plan to differentiate “radically-minded” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.

Putin said the decision was to establish by Oct. 15 a demilitarized area 15–20 km (10-12 miles) deep along the contact line between rebel and government fighters.

Idlib is held by an array of rebels. The most powerful is Tahrir al-Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the former Nusra Front – an al Qaeda affiliate until 2016.

Other Islamists, and groups fighting as the Free Syrian Army banner, are now gathered with Turkish backing under the banner of the “National Front for Liberation”.

The area is also the last major haven for foreign jihadists who came to Syria to fight the Alawite-led Assad government.

FOREIGN FIGHTERS

Putin said that, at Erdogan’s suggestion, by Oct. 10, all opposition heavy weapons, mortars, tanks, rocket systems would also be removed from the demilitarized zone.

Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe, said it was unclear how Turkey and Russia would be able to separate radical fighters from other rebels.

The hope is that Syrians “will be more inclined to be part of a demilitarization effort” while foreign fighters “have nowhere to go”, he said.

While it is premature to call the agreement a triumph for Turkey, he said: “it does give Turkey more room to implement this more peaceful vision on the ground and pre-empt an attack on Idlib that could have major and disastrous effects on Turkey”.

Earlier this month, Putin publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdogan for a truce when the two met along with Iran’s president at a summit in Tehran. Iran also welcomed the agreement.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Beirut and Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Thomas Balmforth in Moscow, Michelle Martin in Germany, Daphne Psaledakis, Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by William Maclean)