Residents of Sarmada in north-west Syria were cleaning up rubble on Sunday after heavy bombing by the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, witnesses have said.
It was the first attack on the town, a vital commercial hub near the Bab Al Hawa border crossing with Turkey, since fighting between groups in the region backed by Turkey and Russia intensified last month.
The two countries almost came into direct conflict in north-west Syria early last year, with each state seeking to expand its sphere of influence before reaching a tentative truce in March 2020.
The bombing in Sarmada killed at least four people at the weekend, Idlib residents and opposition monitoring groups said.
Ahmad Al Hani, a gold trader who was in the town on Sunday morning for business, said regime artillery and rocket fire hit a commercial road running between the town and the border crossing.
“Many shops were damaged,” he told The National. “Their owners are cleaning up to reopen. But they are afraid that they will be hit again.”
Turkey considers Sarmada, the rest of Idlib and adjacent regions in Aleppo governorate held by its forces to be vital for its security.
Ankara has said that millions of refugees in these areas could push toward its border if the regime’s forces and pro-Iran Shiite militia groups based around the city of Aleppo advance.
After eastern Aleppo fell to the regime in late 2016 after intensive Russian air bombing, Sarmada became the financial and trading centre of the territory outside the control of the Syrian regime in the north-west.
About 500,000 people, including refugees, now live in and around Sarmada, compared with only a few thousand before the civil war began.
Turkey has responded to regime attacks and Russian air bombing of areas held by rebel forces in the north-west by shelling regime positions and pouring troops into Idlib and Aleppo.
Opposition activist Rami Al Sayyed said the bombing of Sarmada was a major expansion of the regime’s campaign to capture the north-west.
Loyalist forces and the Russian air force have mostly stayed away from bombing areas that close to the border with Turkey, which are densely populated by displaced Syrians, he said.
“If the regime keeps bombing Sarmada it is inevitable that the refugees [internally displaced people] would head to Turkey,” Mr Al Sayyed said.
Like most parts of Idlib not held by the regime, Sarmada is controlled by Al Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al Sham.
The Syrian National Army, a Turkey-backed force comprising Syrian rebels, controls nearby areas in northern Aleppo governorate, near the border with Turkey.
The rebels, as well as Turkish troops, have been exchanging attacks with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which controls the pocket of Tal Rifat, near the city of Aleppo.
With Russian air support, the YPG overran and depopulated Tal Rifat, a mostly Sunni area, five years ago. The takeover added to the territory captured by the YPG in the past decade.
But in 2018, Turkey and its allied forces captured Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in Aleppo.
The fall of Afrin, which required the tacit approval of Moscow, ended YPG hopes of holding on to uninterrupted territory along the border.
While there has been speculation among the Syrian opposition that Turkey would be willing to give up areas in Idlib in exchange for Tal Rifat, Mr Al Sayyed said there was always room for miscalculation.
“We have usually seen that whenever the regime advances in the north-west, Turkey takes areas that had been captured by Kurdish militias,” he said.