Regime forces enter key rebel-held town south of Idlib

Regime forces enter key rebel-held town south of Idlib

Regime forces enter key rebel-held town south of Idlib

An aerial photo shows displaced Syrians driving through Hazano in the northern countryside of Idlib, after fleeing on Jan. 28, 2020 its southern countryside towards areas further north near the border with Turkey, as a result of an ongoing offensive by regime forces on Syria's rebel-held northwestern region. (AFP Photo)

Syrian regime forces on Jan. 28 entered a key rebel-held town in the country's northwest after surrounding it on three sides, sending thousands of people fleeing to safety in areas farther north, a war monitor and state media said.

Bashar al-Assad's campaign to regain Idlib province, the last rebel bastion in a nearly nine-year-long civil war, has sparked a new exodus of thousands of civilians towards the border with Turkey, which backs some insurgent groups fighting Assad.

Heavy clashes broke out between rebels and government forces in Maarat al-Numan after the forces entered the town south of Idlib city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, after earlier reporting that the troops backed by Russian air strikes had taken full control.

Syrian state news agency SANA earlier said the army had "liberated most of the town's districts".

The town of Maaret al-Numan, which has been in rebel hands since 2012, sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo. Syrian troops were keeping a road leading west out of the town open, apparently to give insurgents a chance to withdraw.

Syrian government forces have been on the offensive for more than a month in northwestern Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in the country. But in recent days, the government captured more than a dozen villages in the area as the insurgents' defenses began to crumble. Al-Qaeda linked rebels control much of Idlib province and small parts of the adjacent area in Aleppo.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said Syrian troops entered the western neighborhoods of Maaret al-Numan under the cover of intense airstrikes.

Earlier in the day, Syrian troops captured nearby Kfar Roummah, a village that lies southwest of Maaret al-Numan, according to the Observatory. Syrian state TV confirmed that government forces were inside.

The renewed fighting comes despite a Jan. 12 ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides of the conflict.

Turkey's Defense Ministry said Turkish forces would retaliate "in the strongest way, without hesitation" against any attack on its observation posts in Idlib by Assad's forces.

Turkey, which has a 911-kilometer (566-mile) border with Syria along its southern frontier, has 12 military observation posts in the region, under a deal with Moscow and Tehran in 2017.

The Syrian regime’s forces on Dec. 23, 2019, surrounded one of 12 Turkish observation posts in the region. After the regime’s capture of Al-Surman town, in the southeast of Idlib, the eighth observation post of Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in the village was surrounded. Another Turkish observation post in the town of Morek was also surrounded in August, leaving two TSK posts within the regime’s territory.

Turkey already hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees and fears millions more could soon cross the frontier.

On Jan. 27, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that Washington "condemns these unjustifiable attacks against the people of northwest Syria." He added that the U.S. calls for an immediate cease-fire and "full access to the affected areas by humanitarian organizations to alleviate the suffering of the hundreds of thousands that have fled the incessant bombing.''

The government offensive in Idlib province has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them to areas close to the border with Turkey. The province is home to 3 million civilians, and the U.N. has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border.

The push in Maaret al-Numan and west of Aleppo brought government forces closer to retaking a critical north-south highway that passes through the town.

In August, Syrian troops captured another town that the highway passes through, Khan Sheikhoun. If Syrian troops capture Maaret al-Numan, their next target is likely to be Saraqeb, which would become the last major town on the M5 highway outside government control.

The violence came as the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, arrived in the capital Damascus to meet with officials. Pedersen is expected to talk during his visit about activating the constitutional committee whose job is to draft a new constitution for the country.

The 150-member committee met in Geneva in October but has failed for make progress.