Kurdish-led forces on Monday seized a key rebel bastion in Syria’s Aleppo province, extending the opposition’s losses in the region after a major regime operation there, a monitor said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, seized control of Tal Rifaat from mostly Islamist rebel forces on Monday night, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
The SDF capture came despite Turkey shelling the town to try to halt the alliance from advancing after several days of attacks on the one-time rebel stronghold.
It left the rebels in Aleppo with only a few remaining bastions, including the town of Marea, just east of Tal Rifaat, and the border town of Azaz to the north.
Elsewhere, the rebels have largely crumbled in the face of a major regime operation backed by Russian air power and the simultaneous SDF advance.
In recent days, the SDF seized the Minnigh airbase from rebels, and regime forces have virtually encircled the opposition-held eastern part of Aleppo city.
The opposition defeats have angered Turkey, a longstanding backer of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Ankara is particularly sensitive about the SDF advances.
It views Syria’s powerful Kurdish forces as affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an outlawed group that waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.
Turkey has shelled SDF positions for the past three days and warned it will not allow Azaz to fall, but so far has been unable to halt the coalition advance.
Syria’s Kurds have avoided officially siding with either government or opposition during the war, choosing instead to concentrate on building a semi-autonomous region in areas that are largely Kurdish-majority in north and northeast Syria.
Their latest advances are part of a bid to unite the Kurdish town of Afrin in western Aleppo province with Kurdish areas to the east.
Turkey, Russia exchange accusations
As Moscow blasts Ankara’s “provocative” shelling of Kurds in Syria, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday that Turkey will not allow the Syrian town of Azaz just across from the Turkish border fall under the control of Syrian Kurdish fighters.
“We will not let Azaz fall. The YPG (the People’s Protection Units, a Syrian Kurdish militia) will not be able to cross to the west of the Euphrates (River) and east of Afrin,” Davutoglu was quoted as saying by the private NTV television on his plane en route to an official visit to Ukraine.
Davutoglu later Monday also accused Russia of acting as a “terrorist organization” in Syria and vowed to deliver a robust response.
“If Russia continues behaving like a terrorist organization and forcing civilians to flee, we will deliver an extremely decisive response,” Davutoglu said through an official translator during a visit to Kiev.
“Unfortunately, barbaric attacks on civilians are continuing in Syria and these attacks are being waged by both Russia and terrorist groups,” Davutoglu said.
“Russia and other terrorist organizations -- first and foremost, the Islamist State in Syria -- are responsible for numerous crimes against humanity,” he added.
In the same day, Russia described Turkey’s shelling of Kurdish and Syrian regime positions in the north of the country was a “provocative” action.
“Moscow expresses its most serious concern about aggressive actions by Turkish authorities,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. It said Ankara was pursuing a “provocative line” that “is creating a threat to peace and security in the Middle East and beyond.”
On Monday, seven Russian missiles struck a hospital in the northern Syrian town of Azaz, a Turkish security official said, adding the civilian death toll to rise above 14.
Independent Doctors Association, a Syrian non-government organization that runs a hospital in Bab al Salama near the Turkish border, said at least 30 people were wounded in the attacks.
Russia accuses Turkey
Russia also accused Turkey on Monday of assisting “fresh jihadist groups and armed mercenaries” to penetrate Syria illegally to replenish the battle-battered detachments of ISIS and other terrorist organizations.
“Moscow expresses its most serious concern about the aggressive actions by the Turkish authorities regarding the neighboring state,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
U.S. urges for calm
The United States on Monday urged Turkey and Russia to avoid any further escalation after the two traded verbal blows over their respective military actions in war-torn Syria.
“It is important that the Russians and Turks speak directly, and take measures to prevent escalation,” a State Department spokesperson told AFP.
Turkey denies sending troops
The Turkish government denied claims that it had sent troops into northern Syria, where the regime backed by the Russian air force has launched a major campaign, state-run Anatolia news agency said on Monday, quoting the defence minister.
“It is not true,” Ismet Yilmaz told parliament on Sunday night when asked whether Turkish soldiers had intervened in the fighting in the Syrian province of Aleppo.
“The Turkish military has no intention of intervening in Syria.”
The Syrian government claimed that on Saturday 12 pick-up trucks equipped with heavy machine guns and ammunition had crossed into Syria from Turkey via the Bab al-Salama border crossing.
They “were accompanied by around 100 gunmen, some of them Turkish forces and Turkish mercenaries,” Syrian state news agency SANA quoted the foreign ministry as saying.
Turkish artillery struck at targets of Kurdish militia at the weekend, with Ankara insisting that it was returning fire under the rules of engagement.
The regime in Damascus has condemned Ankara over the shelling while urging the United Nations to act.
Turkish soldier killed
A Turkish soldier was killed near the Syrian border in a clash with a group of people who attempted to illegally cross into Turkey, the army said on Monday.
The incident took place on Sunday near the border town of Yayladagi across from the northwestern Latakia region of Syria, the army said in a statement.
Turkish forces at a border post intervened against the group’s attempt to illegally enter Turkey and “our hero comrade fell martyr at the scene,” the army said, without elaborating on the circumstances of the incident or the identity of the individuals.
Turkey shares a 911-kilometre (566-mile) border with Syria and is under pressure from its Western allies to stem the flow of ISIS group militants.
(With AFP and Reuters)SHOW MORE