Turkey has equipped Syrian armed factions it backs with fresh supplies of weaponry to help them try to repel a major Russian-backed assault, senior opposition officials and other sources said on Saturday.
Russia is backing the Syrian army’s large aerial and ground assault as it seeks to gain control of the last big stretch of territory held by armed groups in the northwest of the country.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched the assault last month, saying the armed groups had breached an existing ceasefire, triggering a civilian exodus by bombarding Idlib and adjacent areas.
It has been the biggest escalation since last summer between al-Assad and his enemies in Idlib province and a belt of territory around it.
Ankara stepped up supplies in recent days after failing to persuade Russia in recent meetings of a joint working group that it should end its escalation to avert a major influx of refugees pouring into Turkey, two senior opposition figures said.
In doing so Turkey signaled its readiness to preserve its influence in northwestern Syria, where it has beefed up its troop presence in a dozen military bases that were set up under a de-escalation deal with Russia, a senior armed group commander said.
Turkish officials were not immediately available for comment.
Overnight, a Turkish military convoy arrived in a base in northern Hama near Jabal al-Zawiya, where Russian and Syrian jets have been pounding for weeks, an armed fighter and a witness said.
The delivery of dozens of armored vehicles, Grad rocket launchers, anti-tank guided missiles, and so-called TOW missiles, helped roll back some army gains and retake the strategically located town of Kfar Nabouda, one senior opposition figure said.
A spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), Captain Naji Mustafa, did not confirm or deny any new supplies by Turkey, saying the armed groups had long had a big arsenal of weapons from anti-tank to armored vehicles “alongside material and logistical support by our Turkish brothers.”
The retreat from Kfar Nabouda was an upset to a Russian goal of a speedy military campaign to gain another slice of heavily populated Idlib province.
In the last 24 hours, the Syrian army has been sending large troop reinforcements ahead of opening a new front, a source in touch with Syrian army commanders told Reuters.