As Turkey sent more reinforcements, Syrian government forces captured new areas in the northwest, state media and opposition activists said on Saturday.
The escalated situation caused a humanitarian crisis with about 600,000 people fleeing their homes in Syria’s last rebel stronghold since the beginning of December, according to the United Nations.
Rebels control much of Idlib province and parts of the neighboring Aleppo region that is home to some 3 million people — many of them displaced from other parts of Syria. The Syrian army aims at securing a strategic highway in rebel-controlled territory, including the city of Idlib, the densely populated provincial capital.
“Our aim is to clear the highway and evict terrorists from it,” a Syrian commander on the ground told state TV.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces still have 30 kilometers of the highway to clear before it comes under full control of the army for the first time since 2012.
Syrian state TV reported Saturday that government forces captured four villages in Aleppo province near the highway.
It added that Syrian troops and experts have cleared explosives and mines from the recently captured town of Saraqeb.
The new push came as Turkey, a main backer of the opposition, sent more reinforcements into Idlib, according to the Observatory.
The Observatory said a convoy consisting of 430 vehicles entered Syria since Friday night, raising the number of vehicles that entered Syria since last weekend to well over 1,000.
A rare clash on Feb. 3, between Turkish troops and Syrian soldiers left seven Turkish soldiers and a Turkish civilian dead, as well as 13 Syrian troops.
On Friday, Turkey’s Defense Ministry warned the army would respond “even more forcefully” to any attack on Turkish observation posts in the area, adding: “Our observation posts will continue carrying out duties.”
The violence has also raised tensions between Russia and Turkey, which have been working together to secure cease-fires and political talks.