At least 15 killed as rebels and Syrian government forces clash ahead of Erdogan’s Russian visit

At least 15 people have been reported killed in shelling by government and insurgent forces in northwestern Syria, further straining a Russian-Turkish ceasefire deal for the region nearly a day before the Turkish president’s visit to Russia, Reuters reported on Sunday.

According to the state-run Anadolu Agency (AA), Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been scheduled to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday.

The conflicts on Sunday took place in northwestern Syria, in towns and villages between southern rural Idlib and northern rural Hama, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The northwest is the last stronghold of the opposition groups in Syria, who rebelled against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. Many of the rebels were forced to retreat there after military defeats at the hands of Syrian government forces backed by Iran and Russia.

In 2018, Damascus was poised to mount an offensive into the northwest, raising fears of a humanitarian catastrophe. The assault was suspended after a deal was reached between Moscow and Ankara last September that included creating a 15 to 20 km buffer zone surrounding Syria’s last major rebel stronghold.

According to the deal, Russian and Turkish forces would patrol the buffer zone while “radically-minded” groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militia, would withdraw from the zone and hand over heavy weapons by 20 October.

But the deal has come under strain in recent weeks. Around 45 people have been killed in the last five days alone, most of them by government shelling of rebel-held areas, according to Reuters.

HTS militia, which has a wide influence in northern Syria, includes the former Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front. The jihadist group seized control of most of Idlib last month, following fights that lasted months with Turkish-backed militias.

More than half the Idlib region is held by HTS, while Turkey-backed rebels hold most of the remaining region. HTS has not yet made its position known in the agreement.

Since Russia’s military intervention on its side in 2015, Assad’s government has retaken large parts of Syria from opposition fighters and militants.

More than 360,000 people were killed in Syria’s war since 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

One Turkish soldier killed, another wounded in Syria: Defence Ministry

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