Russian-backed Syrian regime forces have intensified their bombing campaign on Saraqib city, the last key opposition-controlled transit point in Idlib province, opening the way for a final showdown in the nine-year-old war, experts said.
The battle for Saraqib city and its surrounding highways has already triggered an exodus of civilians, and is key to the fate of the Syrian opposition as it clings onto its remaining territory in northwest Syria. The battle for the city also raises the prospect of a face-off between Turkey and Russia, who support opposing sides in the conflict.
“With every iteration of the war and battle lines drawn and redrawn … Idlib has continuously and increasingly appeared the last battle ground for the resistance’s last stand against the regime,” said Jessica Leyland, Senior Intelligence Analyst at AKE International.
Russia and Turkey, who have signed various agreements during the Syrian war, are being pushed into a position of conflict as Syrian airstrikes supported by Russia have killed Turkish troops sent by Ankara to support the opposition.
The Syrian war, which started with the regime’s deadly oppression of anti-government protests, has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced more than half the country’s population.
On Sunday night, eight Turkish troops were killed in strikes by the Russian-backed Syrian regime, whose forces had surrounded several Turkish observation posts in the area around Saraqib.
The strikes came after Turkey sent three convoys of over 400 military vehicles into Syria and set up three new observation posts around Saraqib to support opposition groups there, following major advances by regime forces and their Russian allies to take the strategic city.
In retaliation for the killing of its soldiers, Turkish jets entered Syrian airspace and killed more than 13 regime troops in Hama, Latakia and Idlib, according to a war monitor.
Turkish and Syrian regime forces also exchanged fire around Saraqib, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while the government forces bombed the so-called “demilitarization zone” in Idlib.
“These latest clashes are extremely significant. It can be seen that these battles pushing into Idlib and western Aleppo province were on the horizon in September 2018 – or even before – when the demilitarization zone agreement was struck,” said Leyland.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Syrian regime forces attacked Turkish troops because Ankara had not informed Moscow of its latest moves in Idlib. Ankara denied the claim, saying it had informed the Kremlin.
Why is Saraqib important?
Saraqib is a city in the southeast of the Idlib region covering an area of 170 square kilometers. Its residents revolted against the Syrian regime and the city changed hands many times between the Syrian regime, the opposition Free Syrian Army and other opposition factions and extremist groups.
It is strategically important because it is the intersection between two major highways connecting Aleppo with Latakia, known as the M4, and Aleppo with Hama, Homs and Damascus which is known as the M5.
If the Syrian regime captures Saraqib, it would be a major blow to the opposition because it would separate Idlib and its surroundings from the Aleppo region, where some of the towns are also under opposition control. The city also serves as a gateway to the major provincial city Idlib, the last remaining opposition stronghold after the Syrian regime captured Maaret al-Numan on January 28.
The map below shows Saraqib’s location and its connections to Syria’s major cities, all of which are now under Syrian regime control.