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Top US officials visit Syria's Idlib and pledge aid as Turkey downs another jet

Turkey-backed rebels meanwhile lose key town of Saraqeb to Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias
US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, and James Jeffrey, the US envoy for Syria, pose with rescue workers at the Syrian commercial crossing point of Bab al-Hawa in Idlib (Reuters)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

Two senior US officials visited Syria's Idlib on Tuesday and pledged $108m aid for Syrian civilians, hours after Turkey downed another warplane over the war-torn province. 

US representative to the UN Kelly Craft, along with US Special Envoy James Jeffrey, briefly visited Idlib and met Syrian NGO representatives and the White Helmets civil defence group.  

The visit was a first by any US official. During the visit, Craft announced the aid package, which Washington said was earmarked for "the people of Syria in response to the ongoing crisis caused by Assad regime, Russian, and Iranian forces".

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been waging an offensive on rebel-held areas in and around Idlib province since December, displacing a million people towards the Turkish border in the process.

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Earlier Tuesday, the Turkey announced that it had shot down a Syrian L-39 military jet in Idlib. A Turkish military source told journalists that the plane was downed by a missile released by one of Ankara's F-16s, possibly within Turkish territory.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month said Turkey would down any aircraft that targets civilians in Idlib. So far Ankara and rebel groups it backs have downed three Syrian military jets and destroyed several helicopters.

Turkey has called on the United States and Nato for military assistance in Idlib, where a violent confrontation with the Syrian government is escalating.

However little has been forthcoming - though Donald Trump has told Erdogan he would lobby Nato to deploy Patriot missiles in south Turkey.

Jeffrey told journalists after the visit that the US was willing to provide ammunition alongside humanitarian assistance to Turkey in Idlib.

"Turkey is a Nato ally. Much of the military uses American equipment. We will make sure that equipment is ready and usable," Jeffrey said, according to Reuters.

Hezbollah in Saraqeb

On the ground, pro-Syrian government forces recaptured the strategic town of Saraqeb in Idlib on Monday after heavy clashes for the second time in two days. The reversal dealt a significant blow to Turkey-backed rebels, and sees Damascus regain key areas around the coveted M5 highway. 

Turkish sources told Middle East Eye that pro-Assad forces made up of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iran-aligned groups, backed by the Russian air force, stormed Saraqeb and pushed hard to get all districts of the town under their control, in an attempt to avenge dozens of fighters killed by Turkish drone strikes.

Russia's defence ministry said on Monday night that it has deployed military police to Saraqeb “to ensure the safety and unhindered movement of vehicles and civilians along the M4 and M5 highways”. 

The move puts Turkey in a peculiar position because Turkish officials repeatedly told the media that they wouldn’t tolerate the Syrian government seizing more territory.

However the Russian presence in Saraqeb may make the town a safe zone for Assad's forces because it could make it hard for Ankara to conduct operations in the city.

Turkish officials in Ankara don’t expect any major Turkish military operation to push Syrian government forces back to lines drawn up in a 2018 ceasefire agreement until after Erdogan meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday in Moscow.

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