Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and his Russian counterpart discussed by phone developments in Syria’s Idlib province and measures to reduce tension in the area, the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Tuesday.
A renewed wave of violence in northwestern Syria has killed more than 120 civilians, rescue workers and civil defence officials say. The offensive by the Syrian army and its allies, backed by Russia, has uprooted more than 150,000 people in the biggest escalation in the war since last summer, the United Nations says.
On Monday, rebels said they mounted a counterattack against government forces in northwestern Syria, where Idlib is located, ramping up battles in Syria’s last major insurgent stronghold.
A senior rebel commander said the latest offensive showed an array of rebel forces – from Turkey-backed rebels to jihadists – were still able to prevent the Russian-backed army assault from making any major territorial gains in the third week of heavy air strikes.
“We conducted this lighting offensive to show the Russians we are not easy prey and throw the regime off balance,” said Abu Mujahid, from the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front.
On Monday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that the Syrian government was targeting Turkish-Russian cooperation in Idlib by violating the agreed ceasefire, a deal that had staved off a government offensive since September.
The rebels’ ability to withstand some of the heaviest air strikes in over a year had strengthened Ankara’s hand in recent days where it has pushed Moscow to scale down the campaign, a senior opposition figure in touch with Turkish-intelligence told Reuters.
“We were told that Erdogan told Putin the deal would collapse if matters escalated much more beyond this,” said the opposition figure who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Moscow had been piling pressure on Ankara to start an operation against the opposition-held areas after Turkey’s failure to push rebels to agree to Russian patrols and get al Qaeda-inspired militants out of a buffer zone that underpinned the Turkish-Russian deal.
Since April 28, a total of 18 health facilities have been struck, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told Reuters on Monday. Two hospitals were hit twice.
At least four health workers have been killed, and, as of Monday, the 18 health facilities – which collectively serve a minimum of 193,000 people – remain out of service, OCHA said.
The Syrian army denies its strikes target civilians and says its forces only bomb militants associated with hardline Sunni fundamentalist groups linked to al-Qaeda.