NEAR SARMADA/SYRIA: Syrian regime forces pushed further into an opposition-held bastion in the country’s northwest region on Wednesday, inching toward a key town following months of deadly bombardment, a monitor said.
After eight years of civil war the Idlib region, controlled by Syria’s opposition, is the last major stronghold of opposition to Bashar Assad’s regime.
Airstrikes and rocket fire by the regime and its ally Russia have pounded Idlib for more than three months, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands.
In the south of the stronghold, almost all residents of Khan Sheikhun — which lies on a key highway coveted by the regime — have left the town.
The road in question runs through Idlib, connecting regime-held Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, which was retaken by loyalists from opposition in December 2016.
After a week of ground advances, Assad’s forces were just a few kilometers away from the town on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Regime forces are now 4 km from Khan Sheikhun to the west, with nothing between them and it but fields,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
To the east, pro-Assad forces are battling to control a hill just 6 km from the town, the head of the Britain-based Observatory said.
Airstrikes pounded the area, with a Russian warplane killing a civilian in the area of Maaret Hurma in Idlib province, said the Observatory, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.
Clashes on Wednesday killed 14 members of the regime forces, as well as 20 opposition fighters, it said.
State news agency SANA on Wednesday said army troops had taken several villages from the opposition in the area west of Khan Sheikhun.
AFP correspondents have reported seeing dozens of families flee fighting over the past few days, heading north in trucks stacked high with belongings.
On the highway not far from the Turkish border on Wednesday, a family was driving north in their pickup truck.
“We want to save ourselves,” said Abu Ahmad, 55, behind the wheel on the road near the town of Sarmada.
“We left our sheep, we left our homes, and we fled,” he said, dressed in a long white robe.
Sitting beside him, his wife Umm Ahmad said they had left almost everything behind.
“Our land is spilling with grapes and figs,” she said of the family farm near the town of Maaret Al-Noman.
A buffer zone deal brokered by Russia and Turkey last year was supposed to protect the Idlib region’s 3 million inhabitants from an all-out regime offensive, but it was never fully implemented.
An alliance led by fighters from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) took full control of the anti-Assad stronghold in May.
Regime and Russian airstrikes and shelling since late April have killed 820 civilians, according to the Observatory.
The UN says dozens of health centers as well as schools have been targeted.
Humanitarian workers have warned that any full-blown ground attack on Idlib would cause one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria’s war.
The conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad since starting with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.
Regime forces have taken back large parts of the country from opposition fighters and militants with Russian military backing since 2015.
But Idlib, nearby areas controlled by the Turkey-backed opposition, and a large swathe of the northeast held by Kurds remain beyond its reach.
Analyst Nawar Oliver said that, with the ongoing airstrikes and ground advances, regime forces aimed not only to retake the road running through Idlib, but also pile pressure on HTS and allied fighters.
Regime forces “won’t hesitate to bite off or control everything they can,” said Oliver, an expert at the Turkey-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies.
They want to “impose a new reality on the region, the rebels, and their Turkish ally, and to use it as a tool or weapon in any current or future negotiations,” he said.