BEIRUT: Syrian troops began clearing barricades from the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo on Saturday after recovering full control of the road in a Russian-backed offensive, Syrian state media reported.

It marks a major gain for President Bashar al-Assad, as reopening the M5 highway will restore the shortest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in more than seven years of conflict.

A reporter with state-run al-Ikhbariya news channel, broadcasting from the highway on the Aleppo outskirts, said clearing the barriers started in the early hours of Saturday.

Restoring government control over the M5 has been seen as a major objective of a Russian-backed offensive that has been underway since early December in the rebel-held northwest.

The offensive has forced more than 800,000 people to flee.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war using a network of sources on the ground, said government forces had captured a belt of territory around the road, securing it completely.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters the Russian-backed offensive may stop now that the road had been secured but added that the government could yet seek to seize more ground north of Aleppo to secure the city.

The reopening of the highway was part of a 2018 agreement between Russia and Turkey which was concluded with the stated aim of stabilising the situation in the Idlib region of the northwest, a major foothold for the anti-Assad insurgency.

The pact called for establishing a de-militarised zone between the warring sides in addition to the reopening of a second highway, the main road linking Aleppo with the government-held coastal region.

In agreement with Russia, Turkish forces deployed into the northwest at a dozen observation posts.

But tensions have spiralled between Russia and Turkey during the latest offensive, as 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed by Syrian attacks in the past two weeks.

Turkey has vowed to drive back Syrian troops beyond the Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of this month.

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said on Saturday Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in the Idlib region in line with its de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran, which also backs Assad.

Turkey inks de-escalation agreements

Meanwhile, Turkey said on Saturday it had fulfilled its responsibilities in Syria’s Idlib region in line with de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran, warning it would take military action in the area if diplomatic efforts with Moscow fail.

Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria’s war, agreed in 2018 to set up a de-escalation zone in the northwestern region. But their fragile cooperation has been disrupted by a Syrian government offensive in Idlib, in which 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks.

Ankara has said it will use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of February, and President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian government forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says Turkey has flouted deals it made with Moscow and aggravated the situation in Idlib. The Kremlin also said Ankara had failed to neutralise militants there.

Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay told broadcaster NTV that Turkey was determined to stop Syrian advances in Idlib, and that Ankara had conveyed its position to Moscow during ongoing talks.

“We cannot overlook the cruelty happening in our neighbour,” Oktay said. “Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib.

Some of our observation posts have fallen into areas controlled by the (Syrian) regime,” he said, referring to Turkish military observation posts established in Idlib under the 2018 deal.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said later on Saturday that Turkey wants to resolve matters with Russia over Idlib through diplomacy, but will take other steps if necessary.

“If it won’t work through diplomatic channels, we will take the necessary steps,” Cavusoglu told reporters at the Munich Security Conference.

He added that a Turkish delegation would go to Moscow on Monday to hold talks over Idlib and that he would meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov later in the day.

Iran, which also supports Assad, said last week it was ready to help Ankara and Damascus resolve their disputes.

Turkey-Russia talks

The escalation of violence in Idlib has also caused hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their homes and head north to the Turkish-Syrian border, many trudging by foot through snow in freezing temperatures, to escape air strikes and artillery fires by the Russian-supported government forces.

Turkey, which currently hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has said it cannot handle a new influx from Idlib. It has poured more than 5,000 troops, several convoys of military vehicles and equipment to the region, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its positions.

As the Syrian government continued its offensive, Turkish and Russian officials held talks in Ankara to tackle the dispute. Erdogan has also spoken on the phone twice with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the Turkish troops were killed.

However, there was no sign of an agreement, with both sides accusing the other of failing to meet their responsibilities.

Turkey, a Nato ally with the alliance’s second-biggest army, has supported rebels looking to oust Assad. Erdogan said earlier this week that the Turkey-backed rebels launched an offensive to retake some areas they had lost to Syrian forces.