TOPSHOT - A convoy of Turkish military vehicles is pictured near the town of Maar Hitat as smoke billows in the background, during reported air strikes by pro-regime forces in northern Syria's Idlib province on August 19, 2019. - A Turkish military convoy crossed into northwest Syria today, heading towards a key town where regime forces are waging fierce battles with jihadists and rebels. (Photo by Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP)OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images
A Turkish military convoy heads south into Idlib province in Syria on Monday, reportedly heading towards Khan Sheikhoun, which is under siege by the Syrian army © AFP

Turkey’s foreign minister has warned Bashar al-Assad’s regime not to “play with fire” after a Turkish military convoy was bombed in north-west Syria.

“These attacks could pave the way for a disaster,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday, adding that Ankara would “do whatever is necessary for our soldiers’ security”.

The heightened rhetoric comes amid a dramatic escalation of violence in one of the last major battlegrounds of the Syria civil war, which has become a zone of proxy conflict embroiling international powers including Turkey and Russia.

Turkey supports armed groups that oppose Mr Assad’s regime, which is in turn backed by Russia and Iran. It has tried to stop pro-government forces from launching a major offensive on the last rebel-ruled area of Syria, which is dominated by jihadist militants but crammed with about 3m civilians.

The UN has long warned that another major offensive could create a humanitarian catastrophe greater than any yet seen in Syria’s bloody eight-year civil war.

Ankara said it had informed Russia that the convoy bombed on Monday night was supplying a Turkish observation post, one of a dozen set up theoretically to uphold a Russian-Iranian-Turkish agreement that has delayed an all-out regime offensive on Idlib province for nearly a year.

Mr Cavusoglu said Turkey had no intention of moving the Turkish-manned observation post in the town of Morek.

Rebels have reportedly withdrawn from Morek under intense aerial bombardment, raising questions about the safety of the Turkish soldiers.

The Syrian government accused Turkey of using the convoy to supply jihadist rebels in the area. Under the deal between the international powers, Turkey, which openly backs anti-Assad opposition groups, was supposed to bring jihadist militants in Idlib to heel.

Moscow complains that Ankara has failed to hold up its end of the bargain and says regime areas and Russian military installations are still being fired on by the rebels.

“If the Russians have decided that they now care about the verbatim implementation of this agreement then that is a big problem for Idlib and for Turkey,” said Sam Heller, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group. This is because it “may be impossible” for Turkey to control battle-hardened jihadist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the dominant former al-Qaeda affiliate

Meanwhile, pro-Syrian regime forces advanced into the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun on Monday night as Syrian regime and Russian forces stepped up their assaults on the last opposition-held pockets.

Under ferocious bombardment from Syrian and Russian jets, rebel groups retreated from the handful of towns they had held south of Khan Sheikhoun to avoid being cut off from the bulk of opposition-held territory.

TOPSHOT - A convoy of Turkish military vehicles passes through the town of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib reportedly heading toward the town of Khan Sheikhun in the southern countryside of the province on August 19, 2019. - Damascus today condemned the deployment of a Turkish military convoy towards a key town in northwestern Syria where regime forces are waging fierce battles with jihadists and rebels. (Photo by Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP)OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images
A tank is transported as part of a Turkish military column moving south through Idlib on Monday © AFP

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitor, said the jihadist militants who had gained ascendancy in Syria’s north-west withdrew from towns including Lataminah and Kafr Zita in the Idlib region.

However, the dominant jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham denied that its forces had completely withdrawn from Khan Sheikhoun and towns to the south.

The fragile de-escalation agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey reached in September has all but broken down. The Assad regime has renewed attacks on the province since April. More than 500 civilians have been killed and at least 400,000 people have fled their homes within Idlib.

In June, Turkey accused Syrian government forces of shelling one of its outposts and wounding three Turkish soldiers in what the foreign minister said was a “deliberate” attack. Russia blamed Syrian opposition forces.

Russia and Turkey have deepened ties in other areas, including Turkey’s recent purchase of a $2.5bn Russian anti-aircraft system, despite the threat of US sanctions.

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