Syrian government forces surrounded a Turkish military observation post in the northwest on Friday after overrunning nearby areas, upping the stakes with Ankara in its Russian-backed offensive against the jihadist-ruled Idlib region.
The move angered Turkey, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu saying his country’s troops will not quit the observation post as Moscow said that it has agreed with Ankara to “activate mutual efforts” to ease the situation in Idlib.
The town of Morek, where the Turkish troops have been cut off, lies in the north of Hama province, part of a jihadist-ruled region centred on neighbouring Idlib province that has been under government assault since late April.
Government forces took control of Morek and other nearby towns including Kafr Zita on Friday, Syrian state news agency SANA said.
Jihadists and allied rebels withdrew from the area ahead of the army’s entry into the strategic town of Khan Sheikhun on Wednesday and government forces took control without resistance, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Regime forces have surrounded the Turkish observation post in Morek after capturing other towns and villages in this pocket,” said the Britain-based monitor.
Speaking at a new conference in the Lebanese capital, Cavusoglu said “our observation point there is not cut-off and nobody can isolate our forces and our soldiers.”
“We are there, not because we can’t leave but because we don’t want to leave,” he told reporters, adding that the issue was being discussed with Damascus allies Russia and Iran.
‘Whatever is necessary’
The Morek observation post, established under a deal with Moscow, is one of 12 the Turkish army set up along the front line between government forces and the jihadists and their rebel allies last year.
On Tuesday Cavusoglu vowed that the Turkish army “will do whatever is necessary” to defend these positions.
The Turkish presidency has also said that it would not abandon any of it observation posts in Syria.
The troops’ mission was to oversee the establishment of a buffer zone agreed by Ankara and Moscow in September.
But the jihadists failed to pull back from the zone as agreed and in April, government and Russian forces resumed intense bombardment of the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin by phone Friday in a bid to de-escalate tensions over the Idlib offensive.
The Kremlin on Friday said that Putin and Erdogan agreed to “activate mutual efforts” to ease the situation in the region.
“They discussed the issues of Russian-Turkish cooperation in the context of stabilisation of the de-escalation zone,” a statement said.
Hours later, the Turkish presidency announced that Erdogan will visit Moscow on Tuesday to meet with Putin.
Erdogan is also set to host his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a summit in Ankara next month to discuss the latest developments.
The Turkish presidency on Friday said regime attacks in Idlib have led to a “grave humanitarian crisis”.
“These attacks damage the efforts to regulate the Syrian conflict,” it said.
The Idlib region, which sits on the Turkish border, is the last major stronghold of opposition to Syria’s Russia-backed government.
Since January, it has been ruled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which is led by jihadists from Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Other rebel groups allied with Turkey were forced to cede overall control.
On August 8, Syrian government forces launched a ground offensive with Russian support against the southern part of the rebel-held region, eyeing control of the main highway from Damascus through Idlib province to second city Aleppo.
Khan Sheikhun and Maarat al-Numan both lie along the highway.
“I see (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad continuing his offensive as momentum is on his side, capturing more of Idlib… and securing more strategic infrastructure,” said Syria researcher Samuel Ramani.
Damascus said Thursday it will open a corridor for civilians to leave the area.
But most civilians had already fled before the pocket was cut off, according to the Observatory.
Since the end of April, more than 400,000 people have fled their homes, particularly in the south of Idlib and north Hama, the United Nations says.
Around 900 civilians have been killed, according to the Observatory.
Following a string of victories against jihadists and other rebel groups, Assad’s government now controls around 60 percent of Syrian territory.
The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people since it started with the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in 2011.