Rebels counter-attacked in Idlib Province in northwest Syria on Thursday, regaining 16 villages before pro-Assad forces claimed that they reversed some of the gains.

The Assad regime and its foreign allies have re-entered Idlib, almost all of which has been held by the opposition since spring 2015. Supported by Russian airstrikes, they were proclaimed earlier this week that they were poised to take the Abu Duhur airbase, with the frontline only 2 km away.

But yesterday, in a sudden assault, rebels cut into the western side of the regime salient. Significantly, the advance was by rebel factions — Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish Nasr, Jaish Izza, the Free Idlib Army, Faylaq al-Sham, Noureddin al-Zinki, and the Turkestan Islamic Party — rather than the hardline jihadist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which had withdrawn from positions in recent days.

Equally significant, those rebel forces have been seen with new Turkish-supplied arms and armored vehicles, indicating a possible pushback by Ankara against not only the Assad regime but also its Russian and Iranian allies. Local sources also report Turkish provision of ammunition, RPGs, mortars, Grad rockets and launchers, and tank shells.

Pro-opposition outlets claimed that at least 60 pro-Assad troops were captured in the initial wave of the attack, and that tanks and other armored vehicles were taken. Among the casualties was Brig. Gen. Ezzedine Yaghi of the 5th Army Division.

Rebels also said Col. Wissam al-Jahjah, a senior commander in the paramilitary Tiger Forces, was killed in battle in northern Hama Province.

“The operation is to hit the belly of the regime deep into liberated territories and to encircle their advancing forces,” said Abdul Hakim al-Rahamon, a senior official in Jaish al-Nasr.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham claimed at the same time that it had struck pro-Assad lines on the east of the salient. It was unclear if HTS’s assault was coordinated with the Turkish-supported rebels.

Ankara is hostile to the jihadist bloc. Some analysts have evaluated that Turkey may have welcomed a pro-Assad offensive that would weaken HTS, but then planned for the rebel counter-attack to regain territory.

HTS had become the dominant military faction in Idlib Province last year by pushing back rebel groups, notably Ahrar al-Sham. It has tried to take over local councils through a Syrian Salvation Government, challenging the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government.

Russia responded with intense bombing of frontlines as pro-Assad forces tried to retrieve villages and move back towards the Abu Duhur base later in the day. Warplanes also struck civilian areas such as the towns of Khan Sheikhoun and Saraqeb.

An Assad regime military official denied that there was any counter-attack, although he acknowledged there were heavy fighting, and said the pro-Assad advance was continuing.

Battle footage:

Rebels in Turkish-supplied mine-resistant vehicles:

Capture of regime troops:

Turkey PM Condemns Pro-Assad Attacks

Without referring to Turkish support of the rebel counter-offensive, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım condemned the Assad regime’s attacks on Idlib Province.

Yıldırım’s remarks after Friday prayers pointed to Turkish concerns over the likelihood of more refugees joining the more than 3 million that are alreaedy in the country, as he said escalating attacks will cause a new migration wave.

The Prime Minister called on Russia and Iran — who joined Turkey in the nominal declaration of a de-escalation zone, only for Russian warplanes to support the pro-Assad offensive — to warn the Assad regime:

Turkey along with Russia and Iran successfully took an initiative to ensure lasting peace in Syria. We are discussing the matter with the countries we work with and are trying to prevent dire consequences that could arise from it.