MAAR HATTAT, Syria: A convoy of Turkish military vehicles is pictured near this town as smoke billows in the background during air strikes by pro-regime forces yesterday. - AFP

Syria: A Turkish military convoy crossed into northwest Syria on Monday, its
path blocked by advancing regime troops as tensions soared between Damascus and
Ankara. Rebel-backer Turkey said its forces were targeted by an air strike,
while the Syrian regime accused Turkish forces of backing
"terrorists". The convoy had entered Idlib province before heading
towards a key town where Russian-backed regime forces are waging a fierce
battle to retake the area from jihadists and rebels.

Turkey claimed an
air strike hit its convoy, killing three civilians, though a war monitor said a
Russian air raid took the lives of three rebels in the surrounding area.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron
yesterday that Moscow supports the Syrian army's offensive against
"terrorists" in the northern province of Idlib. "We support the
efforts of the Syrian army... to end these terrorist threats" in Idlib, Putin
said after Macron urged respect for a ceasefire in Idlib.

After eight years
of civil war, the jihadist-run region on the border with Turkey is the last
major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad's regime. The
region of some three million people was supposed to be protected by a
Turkish-Russian buffer zone deal signed last year, but regime and Russian
forces have upped their deadly bombardment there since late April.

After days of
inching forward, Russian-backed regime ground forces on Sunday entered the key
town of Khan Sheikhun in the south of the stronghold. Yesterday afternoon, a
new loyalist advance saw pro-Damascus fighters take control part of the highway
north of Khan Sheikhun, effectively blocking the Turkish military convoy from
continuing south. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based
monitor with a network of contacts in Syria, said this would stop the convoy
ever reaching a Turkish monitoring post south of Khan Sheikhun.

Earlier in the
afternoon, an AFP correspondent saw the convoy stop on the Aleppo-Damascus
highway in the village of Maar Hattat, just north of Khan Sheikhun. Analysts
say regime forces want to retake the key road that connects Damascus with the
northern city of Aleppo, both of which they control.

Earlier, an AFP
correspondent saw a military convoy of around 50 armored vehicles including
personnel carriers and at least five tanks travelling southwards along the
highway. The Observatory reported Syrian and Russian air strikes aimed at
hindering the convoy's advance. Turkey's defense ministry "strongly"
condemned the attack, saying regime operations were "in violation of the
existing memorandums and agreements with the Russian Federation".

The Damascus
regime meanwhile denounced the convoy's crossing from Turkey. "Turkish
vehicles loaded with munitions... are heading towards Khan Sheikhun to help the
terrorists," a foreign ministry source said, using the regime's blanket
term for rebels and jihadists. This confirmed "the support provided by the
Turkish regime to terrorist groups," state news agency SANA reported the
source as saying.

morning, a Russian air strike hit the rebel vehicle leading the convoy just
outside Maaret Al-Noman, 15 km north of Khan Sheikhun, killing a Turkish-backed
fighter from the Faylaq al-Sham group, the Observatory said. It also killed two
other opposition fighters, it added. After the convoy entered the town, Russian
and Syrian warplanes targeted the area in an apparent "attempt to prevent
the convoy from advancing", Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

On Sunday,
pro-regime forces backed by Russian air strikes took control of Khan Sheikhun's
northwestern outskirts. Fighting continues to the east and west of the town,
the Observatory says. The seizure of Khan Sheikhun and territory further east
would encircle a patch of countryside to its south, including the town of Morek
where the Turkish observation post is situated. 

The Turkish army
earlier said the convoy was heading towards Morek. Analyst Nawar Oliver said
the latest developments in Khan Sheikhun were likely linked to a
"disagreement" between both signatories. He said Turkey had likely
sent the convoy to avoid its troops being "threatened" or placed
"at the mercy of the regime and Russia". It may have also taken a
"decision to protect Khan Sheikhun", he said.

Since late April,
the regime and Russia have upped their bombardment of the Idlib region, killing
more than 860 civilians. More than 400,000 people have fled their homes, the
United Nations says. Jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by Syria's former
Al-Qaeda affiliate, controls most of Idlib province as well as parts of the
neighboring provinces of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. Syria's war has killed more
than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011. - AFP