Syrian army shells areas held by insurgents in north-west's Idlib

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Beirut:  Artillery shelling by government forces pounded parts of the north-western Idlib province on Saturday, thwarting an infiltration attempt by militants as tension rises in the region following victories by al-Qaida-linked militants against Turkey-backed opposition fighters, Syria's state news agency reported.

The violence came as officials in neighbouring Turkey said efforts are being exerted to maintain stability in Idlib.

SANA said the shelling focused on the areas of Zarzour near the border with Turkey and Tamanaa near Maaret al-Numan that was taken this week by al-Qaida- linked militants from Turkey-backed opposition fighters. It reported casualties among the militants.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government shelled six areas in and near Idlib province.

Earlier this month, members of the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, or HTS, took over control of Idlib province and the surrounding countryside after forcing rival insurgents to accept a deal for a civil administration run by HTS in their areas.

The developments threaten to derail a cease-fire in the area reached in September between Turkey and Russia that averted a potentially catastrophic Syrian army assault on Idlib.

A Syrian opposition fighter stands at a checkpoint in the north-western city of Idlib, Syria, in October.

A Syrian opposition fighter stands at a checkpoint in the north-western city of Idlib, Syria, in October.Credit:AP

The deal required jihadist groups to vacate a frontline buffer zone, a move that was never implemented by al-Qaida-linked militants.

Earlier on Saturday, Turkey's defence minister met with commanders and the head of the country's intelligence services in the southern Hatay province bordering Syria's restive Idlib.

"All efforts are being made to continue stability and the ceasefire in line with the Sochi agreement," said Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, referring to a September agreement between Turkey and Russia to set up a buffer zone in Idlib. "Our close cooperation with Russia on this issue continues," the minister said.

Turkey's official Anadolu news agency said Turkish troops dispatched from units across the country were undergoing training at the border in Hatay.

The US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, left, and Turkey's Defence Minister Hulusi Akar seen before a meeting, in Ankara, Turkey, on January 8.

The US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, left, and Turkey's Defence Minister Hulusi Akar seen before a meeting, in Ankara, Turkey, on January 8.Credit:AP

The Syrian government has repeatedly threatened to launch an offensive to recapture Idlib province, which is packed with 3 million people, including many who were displaced from other parts of the country.

The latest advances by the HTS, which include many foreign fighters, raise questions over the future of the deal.

Adding to the confusion US President Donald Trump announced last month that he had decided to withdraw US troops from Syria. The decision injected new uncertainty into the eight-year-long Syrian war and spurred a flurry of contacts over how a resulting security vacuum will be filled across northern and eastern Syria where the US forces are stationed.

Although US officials including National Security Adviser John Bolton have since attempted to walk back from Trump's pledge, on Friday US Defence officials announced the withdrawal had begun, albeit with only equipment rather any of the 2000 US troops.

On the one hand, Turkey aims to pursue a campaign against Kurdish forces that have allied with the United States, and on the other the Russia-and Iran-backed Syrian government sees the chance to recover a huge chunk of territory.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday he was optimistic that a "good outcome" could be achieved that protects both Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, after speaking to Turkey's foreign minister.

AP, Reuters