CAIRO, EGYPT - Syrian government forces continue to whittle away at Turkish-supported rebel forces inside Syria's besieged Idlib enclave, gaining more ground along the strategic Damascus-to-Aleppo highway. Despite warnings by both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron to halt the offensive, the Syrian army appears poised to capture another strategic town.
Syrian state TV reported Thursday that military advances, beginning with the recent capture of Maarat Naaman and 22 smaller towns, have "sparked a collapse in morale" among Turkish-supported rebel forces in Idlib province.
Turkish military forces, which have 12 observation posts ringing the Idlib enclave, attempted to reinforce rebel positions in a number of strategic locations, including Taftenaz Airport, as well as the towns of Binesh and Maarat Misreen. Syrian forces are now outside the strategic town of Saraqeb and appear poised to take it.
Erdogan said the Syrian government advance had caused an unacceptable "flood of a million [Syrian] refugees" toward Turkish territory in recent days. He demanded that government forces withdraw from areas close to Turkish army observation posts.
He said two of Turkey's observation posts — established in coordination with Russia in the Sochi accord — are now behind Syrian government lines. He is demanding that Damascus withdraw from these positions by the end of February or else Turkey, he warns, will take military action to force it to do so.
By the Sochi accord, he was referring to an agreement reached in the Russian resort aimed at demilitarizing Idlib, the last-remaining rebel enclave.
Turkey shelled Syrian government positions during the past several days to avenge the deaths of more than a half dozen of its soldiers in a Syrian government attack this week. Erdogan said Ankara would retaliate "without warning."
Arab media reported that a Russian military delegation was visiting the Turkish capital, Ankara, Thursday to discuss the recent escalation of violence in Idlib province, in which it acknowledged that both Turkish and Russian military forces have been killed. The Russian Foreign Ministry also issued a statement denouncing what it said were "over a thousand rebel attacks on government forces in the past month."
Syrian government media showed video of Turkey moving trucks and other military equipment into Idlib province to reinforce its presence there.
The United States' Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, called the situation in Idlib "very serious" and warned that Washington was considering "imposing sanctions" on those involved in the military escalation.
Jeffrey also said that "not only Russia but the Iranians and Hezbollah have been actively involved in supporting the Syrian offensive." The U.N. Security Council was due to meet to discuss the Idlib situation later Thursday.
The United States recently cut off intelligence cooperation with Turkey, after the Turkish military moved more forces into Syria.