Turkey shoots down Syrian fighter jet as Idlib battle escalates

Regime forces advance on strategic city of Saraqib in push to take control of last rebel-held territory in the country

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The conflict between Syrian armed forces and Turkish-backed opposition troops continues to escalate in the ongoing battle for Syria's Idlib region, with Turkey shooting down a Syrian fighter jet and regime forces advancing on a strategic city in the province on Tuesday.

Turkey said it hit an L-39 jet just hours after issuing a stern warning to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad that it would not relent in its attacks on regime positions. Syrian state media confirmed that a government aircraft was targeted by Turkey during operations in Idlib.

The incident comes just days after Turkey shot down two Syrian fighter jets on Sunday.

The official entrance of Turkey into the Idlib conflict has allowed opposition forces to better defend themselves against the regime’s advances due to additional artillery support.

The shooting down of several Syrian jets this week suggests Turkey is using its own fighter jets and anti-aircraft defence systems to attack Syrian warplanes.

The Russian Defence Ministry said on Sunday that Moscow could not guarantee the safety of Turkish planes flying in Syria after Damascus closed its air space over the Idlib region, the TASS news agency reported.

Both sides are seeing mounting losses as the face-off between Ankara and Damascus marks a new stage in the nine-year war.

Turkey’s Defence Ministry confirmed that a soldier was killed and another wounded on Monday night, raising the number of recent Turkish deaths to 55. The toll includes 33 Turkish soldiers killed on Thursday in a single air strike by Russia-backed Syrian forces.

Turkey has been quick to retaliate, striking Syrian forces with drone attacks that killed more than 90 regime and allied troops in the past week.

Meanwhile, Syrian armed forces continued their push through Idlib, entering a strategic rebel-held town on Monday morning, according to Syrian state media.

Mr Al Assad's forces entered the city of Saraqib, pushing opposition forces out of the neighbouring towns of Joubas, Trinbeh, Dadikh and Kafr Batikh, as they continued their advance in the last rebel-held territory in the country.

The city of Saraqib is situated beside the critically important M-5 highway, which connects Damascus to Aleppo and serves as one of the primary commercial transit routes in the area.

Syrian armed forces have spent weeks securing their hold on this highway, and Saraqib would increase their control of the region's main transportation lines.

The city is not only significant for its geography, but also represents one of the last remaining revolutionary stronghold cities in Idlib province, where anti-government demonstrations once thrived.

Rebel forces, backed by Turkish support and artillery, are keeping a tight grip on Saraqib in the hopes of pushing back the regime's offensive.

Since December, the Syrian armed forces have been using the same playbook to take control of revolutionary stronghold cities in Idlib such as Kafr Nabl, Khan Sheikhoun and Maaret Al Numan.

In Saraqib, they are repeating this strategy, using heavy Russian air strikes to pave the way for ground forces to push out opposition forces.

A UN investigation released on Monday criticised Russia‘s actions in Syria.

The report analysed the war from July 2019 to January 2020 and found Russian aircrafts responsible for bombing civilian targets, such as markets, medical centres or compounds housing internally displaced people.

“Syrian women, children and men continue to face unprecedented levels of suffering and pain,” the report said.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday that the country would not stop fighting against “terrorism” in Idlib in order to solve Europe’s migration crisis.

The violence in Idlib has forced nearly one million people to flee towards the Turkish border with Syria, which remains sealed to Syrian refugees seeking a place to settle. The exodus from Idlib marks the largest migration of Syrians in the conflict to date.

On Turkey's northern border, the route to Europe opened up this week when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country had “opened the doors” to Europe, prompting thousands of refugees to head for Greece. Syrian refugees attempting to reach Greece by sea using inflatable boats were met with heightened border security measures.

The opposition says Syrian government forces are deliberately attacking civilians to provoke them to flee.

A rocket attack believed to have been fired by the Syrian army on a residential quarter of Idlib city left at least nine civilians dead, including five children, according to Osama Idlibi, a rescuer in the opposition-run Syrian Civil Defence.

Overnight Russian and Syrian jets killed at least 10 people in the town of Al Foah in what residents said was a spike in strikes on several towns, including Binish and the outskirts of Tatanaz in Idlib province.

Russia and its Syrian army ally deny indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they target militants.

A video shared by the Turkish government on Monday showed a Greek coastguard vessel firing warning shots near a dinghy carrying refugees and trying to deter the migrants with poles.