Feb. 20 (UPI) -- After weeks of involvement in Syria, Turkish forces on Thursday launched a military offensive in the hotly contested Idlib province, targeting government forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey said its forces and "moderate" anti-Assad groups are fighting the regime in a bid to recapture settlements near the strategic town of Saraqib. The Turkish Defense Ministry said it targeted government troops with artillery, and rebel groups destroyed a Syrian tank and armored vehicles.
Two Turkish soldiers were killed later Thursday in a government-ordered airstrike, military officials said.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft told the Security Council on Wednesday the Trump administration "unequivocally" rejects claims by Russian officials that Turkish forces are responsible for the escalating clashes in Idlib province in Syria's northwest. Russia has been a key military ally to al-Assad's government.
"There is no doubt that the Assad regime and Russia -- not Turkey -- are responsible for orchestrating and executing this military offensive," Craft said.
"The United States will continue to coordinate with Turkey on diplomatic approaches to restore a cease-fire."
U.N. Syria envoy Geir Pederson has called for an immediate cease-fire in Idlib.
"I urge key international players to continue and intensify their contacts to restore calm. I urge all members of this council to put their weight firmly behind the search for a political way forward."
Syria and Russia say they're fighting "terrorists" in Idlib, as well as remnants of anti-Assad rebels who have fought a nine-year campaign to unseat the leader. U.N. officials say the Idlib fighting, which violates a Russia-Turkey truce brokered last year, has created an outpouring of 900,000 Syrian refugees.
"The number of new arrivals is growing by the day," U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said. "If hostilities reach these areas packed with civilians, the human cost will be instant and huge."