Maaret al-Noomane (Syria) (AFP)

Jihadists and rebels were forced Tuesday to withdraw from key areas of the Idleb region in northwestern Syria, facing the advance of troops of the regime, supported by Moscow, against the background of tensions between Ankara and Damascus.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH), anti-Assad groups have left the strategic city of Khan Cheikhoun in Idleb province, as well as adjacent areas in the north of the neighboring province of Hama. .

Most of Idleb Province and segments of neighboring provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia still escape the control of Bashar al-Assad after eight years of conflict, despite the reconquest of most of Syria by the diet.

This region, dominated by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, former Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and home to rebel groups, has been targeted since the end of April for almost daily bombings of Damascus and its Russian ally. .

A spokesman for HTS, however, denied in a statement on Telegram the withdrawal of the group from northern Hama, evoking a "repositioning" of fighters after intense bombing of the regime.

This withdrawal of rebels and jihadists comes hours after regime forces seized more than half of Khan Sheikhoun and managed to block the Aleppo-Damascus highway in the face of a Turkish military convoy.

This strategic route, in the sight of the regime for months, links the two cities under its control through Idleb.

With this withdrawal, an important Turkish observation post in the city of Morek, about ten kilometers south of Khan Cheikhoun, is found surrounded by the regime's forces, told AFP the director of the OSDH, Rami Abdel Rahman.

The Turkish soldiers "have no choice but to retreat through roads" controlled by the regime or within reach, he said.

Ankara has several observation posts in and around Idleb, under agreements with Moscow in the past.

- "Clear warning" -

On Monday, Turkey dispatched a military convoy of about 50 vehicles, the day after the entry of pro-regime forces into Khan Cheikhoun.

But it had to stop along the way after Russian and Syrian bombings aimed at preventing it from progressing and killing three civilians, according to Ankara. The three dead are rebel fighters proturcs, for its part asserted the OSDH.

Damascus accused Turkey of sending "ammunition-laden vehicles" to rescue jihadists and rebels from the progress of the Syrian army.

The pro-government Syrian daily Al-Watan said on Tuesday that the airstrikes targeted a rebel vehicle that was guiding the convoy. "It was a clear warning against Turkish attempts to resuscitate terrorists," the paper said.

Ankara "strongly" condemned the attack, saying it "contradicts existing agreements, cooperation and dialogue with Russia". Tuesday, she added by urging Damascus not to "play with fire".

Turkey, a sponsor of rebel groups in Idleb, is present in the region under an agreement reached in September 2018 in Russia to avoid a major regime offensive.

This agreement, which provided for the creation of a "demilitarized zone" to serve as a buffer between the regime's territories and those held by jihadists and rebels, was only partially respected, as the jihadists refused to withdraw.

- "Keep Astana" -

The latest developments in the field show that Turkish observation posts may complicate, but not prevent, pro-regime forces, said analyst Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

It is unclear whether Damascus and Moscow will move further "or stop to consolidate their new positions and put pressure on Ankara" to implement the agreement on the creation of the buffer zone, explains he to AFP.

According to Samuel Ramani, another analyst, Damascus would seek to show that "Turkey, not the Syrian army, is the main transgressor of the Russian-Turkish agreement.

But, "for Russia, maintaining the Astana coalition is a priority," he added, referring to the Syria negotiating process launched in 2017 by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, in the capital of Kazakhstan ( renamed Nur-Sultan).

Since the end of April, more than 860 civilians have died in the bombardments of the Syrian regime and Russia, according to the OSDH.

Triggered in 2011 after the regime's suppression of pro-democracy protests, the war in Syria claimed more than 370,000 lives and displaced millions of people.

© 2019 AFP