Turkish artillery fire hit regime outposts near the town of Saraqeb late on Wednesday as eyewitnesses confirmed that the Russian-led forces entered the strategic town in northwestern Idleb province.
More than 100 shells pounded regime forces, leaving dozen dead and wounded, according to activists.
On Wednesday, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to drive back Syrian troops in Idleb unless they withdrew by the end of the month, to stem an assault which he said had displaced nearly 1 million people.
Erdogan has criticized Russia, a key backer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, for failing to enforce peace agreements in the region and called for Moscow to “better understand our sensitivities in Syria”.
“From now we will not turn a blind eye to any step that constitutes the violation of the agreements,” he added.
Regime forces were combing the town after rebel fighters fled following intense aerial and ground bombardment of Saraqeb, 15 kilometres east of Idleb city, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its website.
Eyewitnesses told Reuters that rebel fighters had left and that Assad forces were in control of the town, which lies at the junction of two main roads that Damascus seeks to fully control.
Fighters of the National Front thwarted several incursion attempts by the elite Fourth Mechanical Division, killing 35 troops and destroying four tanks on Wednesday.
Syrian state-run TV said that the roads were now within firing range of regime forces.
Assad’s campaign to regain Idleb province, the last rebel bastion in a nearly nine-year-long civil war, has sparked a new exodus of thousands of civilians towards the border with Turkey, which backs some insurgent groups fighting Assad.
The renewed fighting is taking place despite a Jan. 12, 2020, ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides of the conflict. Shelling by regime forces killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday, prompting Turkish forces to strike back.
Erdogan said this week’s clashes amounted to a “new era” in Syria, and that any further attacks would be “responded to in kind”.
“The air and ground elements of the Turkish armed forces will freely move in the Idleb region and if needed will launch an operation,” he said.
Meanwhile, eight humanitarian aid organizations on Wednesday called for an immediate ceasefire in northwestern Syria, where hostilities have displaced half a million people in the past two months.
This article was edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.