Antakya, Turkey – Clashes between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups are continuing in the northwestern strategic city of Saraqeb in Syria’s Idlib province amid heavy Russian bombardment.
On Monday, Syrian state media SANA said government forces had wrested control of the city back from the rebels and pledged to “confront the flagrant Turkish aggression”.
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Syrian forces, backed by Russia, entered Saraqeb and exerted control on February 8, before Turkish-backed armed opposition groups reclaimed it last week on February 27.
According to a SANA correspondent, government forces entered Saraqeb on Monday “after they fought fierce battles against the terrorist organisations supported by the Turkish regime” and are working “to comb the city from the remnants of the terrorists”.
However, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Idlib, Adham al-Hussam, said street battles in Saraqeb continued, with neither side able to hold the city in a decisive way.
“It’s a very fluid situation,” al-Hussam said, speaking from the nearby town of Binnish. “The rebel groups are in control of the western area of Saraqeb and can’t get to the area on the eastern side known as the industrial zone, where the Syrian government forces have positions and have been in control.”
‘Battles very fluid’
Since President Bashar al-Assad’s forces intensified their offensive three months ago on Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria.
Saraqeb has been emptied of its residents, resembling a ghost town. More than 950,000 Syrian civilians have been displaced from their homes and pushed to the Turkish border, finding overcrowded camps and struggling with inadequate shelter.
Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and is wary of admitting in any more, sent its troops into Idlib to prevent the Syrian government forces’ rapid advancement into the province, which under a 2018 Sochi agreement with Russia designated it as a de-escalation zone.
Heavy losses incurred by the Turkish forces, particularly after 34 of its soldiers were killed on Friday, led the government to launch a military operation it dubbed Spring Shield, after repeated warnings made to al-Assad’s forces to withdraw from Turkish observation points set up in the region.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Tariq Solaq, a first lieutenant and commander of the Saraqeb operations room of the rebel forces, said “overall, the situation is under control” of the armed opposition groups.
“Most of the battles are taking place east of Saraqeb near the industrial area,” he said. “The battles are very fluid and sometimes the regime forces succeed in advancing and taking control of one area before losing it again after an hour or so.”
Saraqeb lies at the junction of the vital M5 and M4 highways, the former of which connects the capital Damascus to the country’s second city and economic hub Aleppo. The latter connects Aleppo to the pro-Assad coastal city of Latakia.
Both routes are considered important commercial and trade routes, and under the 2018 Sochi agreement were supposed to be free of military activity by both opposition groups and Syrian government forces. Additionally, joint patrols on the highways by Russia and Turkey were also supposed to be implemented, with the purpose of allowing trade exchanges to take place.
Full control over the highways by either government forces or opposition fighters can shift the dynamics of the conflict in their favour.
“Capturing Saraqeb will mean that whoever is in charge of the highways will be able to determine whether the other side can use it or not,” Haid Haid, a senior researcher at Chatham House told Al Jazeera.
“For that reason, the Syrian regime has for the past few weeks captured most of the M5 highway between Damascus and Aleppo, and has been trying to recently capture the M4 that goes all the way to Latakia.”
Additionally, the strategic gains give the controlling side an advantage in terms of political leverage and ability to impose their conditions in future negotiations at the international level.
Haid said the Syrian government’s recent gains in Saraqeb is the result of two changes: the first relating to the “mobilisation of regime forces from other areas to focus on fighting in Saraqeb”, while the second is due to Russia providing air support.
“That was not the case in the past two days,” he explained. “Back then, there wasn’t any significant Russian air support for the Syrian regime and that’s why the regime was losing. Whether that support will remain active will determine the ability of regime forces to advance or at least maintain whatever they have achieved.”
Ramping up the fighting
Cautious diplomatic relations between Turkey and Russia, who back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, has seen the two countries speak several times about the situation in Idlib. On Monday, Turkey’s presidential office confirmed that a meeting between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin will take place in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the developments in Syria.
Speaking at a meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan said he has no interest in coming into a conflict with Russia, and expressed his hope that Ankara and Moscow will find a solution.
In a statement, the Kremlin stressed that Russia “attaches great importance to cooperation with our Turkish partners”.
According to Haid, the fighting forces in Idlib will be eager to ramp up their hostilities as each side seeks to cement or add to gains in the lead up to the Putin-Erdogan meeting.
“If you look at what’s happening on the ground right now it seems like both actors are trying to in a way make as many gains on the ground as possible in order to increase their leverage before the summit takes place,” he said.
“This indicates that there is no clear understanding of what the outcome of the summit will be like, but that if Turkey fails to reach an accepted outcome then they will not only lose domestic support but also their reputation as a regional power.”