DAMASCUS (Dispatches) -- Syrian troops Wednesday pushed on with their offensive in the country’s northwest, securing areas along a key national highway they liberated, as tensions spiraled with Turkey which supports terrorist groups.
After a series of tit-for-tat attacks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian forces "everywhere” if his soldiers are harmed and accused Damascus ally Russia of committing "massacres”.
Syrian forces have made major inroads in the last terrorist-held area in the northwest, but Turkey has stepped up its provocative moves to curb the advances.
Heightening tensions, a Syrian helicopter was downed by rocket fire in Idlib province on Tuesday. Turkish media blamed the attack on militants while war monitoring group the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was carried out by Turkey.
The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper on Wednesday said three air crew were killed in the attack.
In their latest push, Syrian forces have seized a string of towns and villages from terrorists in the west of Aleppo province since Tuesday night, the London-based Observatory and Al-Watan reported.
Hours after completely retaking the economically vital M5 highway linking the country’s four largest cities, they cleared all areas directly west of the road in Aleppo province of Takfiri and other terrorists.
Government forces were also poised Wednesday to push terrorists out of the road’s eastern environs, in a move that would completely secure the motorway from attacks, the monitor and Al-Watan said.
That M5 links the capital Damascus to the second city of Aleppo through the major hubs of Homs and Hama, and has been a key target for the government as it seeks to restore territorial control and rekindle a moribund economy.
Its recapture will secure Aleppo, the country’s former industrial hub, which still comes under sporadic rocket fire from holdout terrorist groups.
Syria’s last major terrorist pocket is dominated by Takfiri militants of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance and their allies.
Government forces have pressed on with a blistering assault in the region since December.
Turkey has sent reinforcements to Syria in recent days following the series of exchanges with the Syrian army, the latest of which saw five Turkish troops killed by shelling in Idlib on Monday.
According to an AFP correspondent in Idlib, a new convoy of Turkish armored vehicles arrived Wednesday in the town of Binnish, northeast of Idlib city.
Erdogan on Tuesday warned Syria’s government that if there are more attacks against Turkish forces, "they will pay a very, very heavy price”.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu urged Russia and Iran to stop Syria’s assault on Idlib.
The Kremlin on Wednesday accused Turkey of flouting agreements it had made with Russia to neutralize militants in Idlib and said terrorist attacks on Syrian and Russian forces in the region were continuing.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow remained committed to a deal on Syria it had struck with Ankara, but that Russia considered militant attacks in Idlib to be unacceptable and in contravention of that same agreement.
Russia hashed out a deal with Turkey in 2018 to create a de-militarized zone in Idlib, but those agreements and others between the two countries have come under strain amid mounting tensions in the region.
"In particular, according to this document (the agreement), the Turkish side undertook to ensure that terrorist groups in Idlib were neutralized,” said Peskov.
"We continue to note with regret that these groups are carrying out strikes from Idlib on Syrian forces and also taking aggressive action against our military facilities,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call. "This is "unacceptable and runs contrary to the Sochi agreements.”
U.S. Troops Kill Civilians
A Syrian was killed and another was wounded in a rare clash Wednesday between American troops and a group of Syrians who tried to block a U.S. convoy driving through a village in northeastern Syria.
The killed man was among residents of a village east of the town of Qamishli who had gathered at an army checkpoint, pelting the U.S. convoy with stones and taking down a U.S. flag from one of the vehicles. At that point, American troops fired with live ammunition and smoke bombs at the residents, reports said.
A U.S. military spokesman claimed American forces conducting a patrol near Qamishli
encountered a checkpoint occupied by pro-government forces.
Hundreds of U.S. troops are illegally stationed in northeastern Syria, working with Kurdish militants. The U.S. carries out patrols in northeastern Syria, but it was not immediately clear why the convoy drove into a government-controlled area.
The incident marks a rare confrontation involving U.S. and Syrian troops in the crowded region and is certain to further escalate tensions.
State-run Al-Ikhbariya TV aired a cellphone video showing an armored vehicle flying a U.S. flag standing on a rural road while a car appeared to be blocking its way.
Locals are seen walking past the U.S. armored vehicle, with at least two soldiers inside, one of whom steps down as civilians approach. One civilian is seen tearing a U.S. flag as he approaches the soldier.
The TV said protests spread, preventing reinforcements from coming to help the U.S. convoy. The report said the wounded civilian and was being treated at the Qamishli hospital.
The Observatory said residents in Khirbet Ammu blocked the path of a U.S. convoy. A Russian convoy arrived on the scene to defuse the tension, it said.