Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 September 2019

Syrian soldiers eye Turkish outpost in recaptured town

Since April, bombardment by the Syrian military and its Russian ally has killed more than 900 civilians in Idlib

A Syrian army soldier holds a Syrian flag as he stands on a military vehicle in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, Syria. Reuters
A Syrian army soldier holds a Syrian flag as he stands on a military vehicle in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, Syria. Reuters

Syrian soldier Ahmad Amuri rolled up on a motorbike to hand water bottles to comrades standing guard under pistachio trees, only a few dozen metres from a Turkish observation point in north-west Syria.

President Bashar Al Assad's troops seized the town of Morek from rebels on Friday, encircling the Turkish outpost.

"Calm has returned to Morek," Mr Amuri told AFP on Saturday, with water bottles in a black plastic bag, a cap on his head and his uniform covered in dust.

A Turkish flag flapped over the post nearby, which was fortified by a tall cement wall and barbed wire, but AFP could not see any Turkish soldiers.

"Today is a day of rest," the soldier in his twenties told AFP during a guided government tour for journalists.

"We're not at all worried by the presence of a Turkish observation post."

The Syrian conflict has spiralled into a complex war involving world powers since its beginnings in 2011 with the repression of anti-Assad protests.

In northwest Syria, regime forces have in recent days chipped away at the militant-dominated region of Idlib on the Turkish border after months of deadly bombardment.

That is despite a deal reached between rebel-backer Turkey and regime ally Russia last year to set up a buffer zone around the region to protect its about three million inhabitants.

In Morek, Syrian soldiers gather around an officer preparing to deploy troops across the municipality.

He opens up a map, pointing to the location of the Turkish outpost and planned Syrian army positions.

The Syrian officer told AFP that the Turkish outpost was an "international matter".

"We pass by the Turkish position at Morek, the Turkish soldiers haven't turned on us, nor us on them. We see them clearly and they see us too," he said.

"We're waiting for orders to know the next stage," he added.

"We will work to bring back civilians as soon as possible."

The Turkish-Russian deal in September last year was supposed to avert any full-blown offensive on Idlib, but it was never fully put into effect.

In January, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham — an alliance led by the former Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria — extended its influence across Idlib and nearby parts of other provinces.

Increased bombardment by the Syrian military and its Russian ally since late April has killed more than 900 civilians in Idlib.

In the same period, the violence has displaced more than 400,000 people including many already displaced from other areas, the United Nations says.

To the north of Morek, regime forces also retook the town of Khan Sheikhoun on Wednesday.

Inside Khan Sheikhoun, Mohamed Al Awaj, 27, said he was happy to return home after fleeing in 2012.

"The town has changed so much," he said.

Around him, Khan Sheikhoun was nearly empty, its buildings damaged or completely ruined. The tracks of armoured vehicles were visible by the side of one road.

"I found my home burnt and neighbourhood destroyed," he said.

"I haven't seen any of my neighbours except for Umm Baheera," he said, referring to a woman, 70, who he said was the only person who stayed behind.

A team of AFP correspondents only saw two civilian families.

Gun on his shoulder, Hussein Hassan said he had helped his battalion navigate the streets of Khan Sheikhoun, where he grew up.

"I spent my childhood playing in these roads. I know them by heart," said Mr Hassan, 28, who left his home town several years ago.

"It used to be so beautiful," he said.

"But I didn't recognise the town for all the destruction."

Updated: August 26, 2019 12:22 PM

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