Syrian troops capture key town in rebel-held Idlib province

This Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, photo, released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian army soldiers chant slogans as they hold their rifles, in western rural Aleppo, Syria. (SANA via AP)
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Updated 29 January 2020

Syrian troops capture key town in rebel-held Idlib province

  • The town of Maaret Al-Numan in Idlib province sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and is considered critical to Assad’s forces

DAMASCUS: Syrian government forces captured one of the largest and most strategic rebel-held towns in the country’s northwest, the Syrian military and opposition activists said Wednesday, part of a Russian-backed military assault that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to safer areas.
The town of Maaret Al-Numan in Idlib province, which had been in rebel hands since 2012, sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and is considered critical to President Bashar Assad’s forces. The town is now largely empty as a result of intense bombardment in recent weeks.
Its capture is the latest in a series of military triumphs for Assad. His forces have retaken control of most of the country from rebel fighters, largely because of blanket air support from Russia, which helped turn the tide in the nearly nine-year civil war.
Syria’s nearly nine-year conflict has left more than 400,000 people dead and displaced half of Syria’s population, including more than 5 million who are refugees, mostly in neighboring countries.
An exception to the Syrian government’s success in retaking territory from rebel groups has been Idlib province in the northwestern corner of the country near the Turkish border, which is held by opposition fighters and is dominated by Al-Qaeda-linked militants. The province is home to some 3 million people, many of them internally displaced.
Syrian government forces have been on the offensive for more than a month in 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.
“Our armed forces continued operations in southern parts of Idlib with the aim of putting an end to crimes committed by terrorist groups,” said army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ali Mayhoub. He listed more than a dozen villages and towns captured, including Maaret Al-Numan.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said insurgents withdrew from the town late Tuesday. Syrian troops had left a road west of the town opened apparently to give a chance for insurgents to pull out and to avoid street battles inside the town.
But the push appears to have angered Turkey, which backs the opposition and has for years coordinated with Russia, a main backer of Assad, during the conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed frustration with Moscow over its failure to halt Syrian government attacks in Idlib.
Erdogan said Russia is not loyal to agreements reached with Turkey over the situation in Idlib, including a cease-fire that collapsed earlier this month. He said he is in contact with the Russians to tell them to stop the bombing “in Idlib or our patience will run out.”
Amid intense airstrikes and heavy bombardment, trucks loaded with displaced people from areas surrounding Maaret Al-Numan, including Jabal Al-Zawiya, headed toward areas near the Turkish border, already bursting with internally displaced people.
“Only God knows where our destination will be, where we will find a house. We do not know anything, maybe we will sleep in the car,” said one woman who was among those fleeing with her family Tuesday. She declined to give her name, fearing for her safety.
The Syrian Response Coordination Group, a relief group active in northwestern Syria, reported that until the end of December more than 216,000 people fled their homes in Idlib. In a new release, the group said 167,000 fled since the beginning of January, bringing the total number to more than 383,000 people.
Farther north, government forces began an offensive on the western suburbs of Aleppo in an attempt to push insurgents away from Syria’s largest city. Around noon Wednesday, Syrian troops captured a major suburb west of Aleppo, according to state media.
Maaret Al-Numan sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, once Syria’s main commercial hub. With the town’s fall, government forces are now closer to retaking the critical north-south highway.
In August, Syrian troops captured another town along the highway, Khan Sheikhoun. Now that Syrian troops are in control of Maaret Al-Numan, their next target is likely to be Saraqeb, which would become the last major town on the M5 highway that remains outside government control.


Pope appears to give thumbs down to Trump’s Middle East peace plan

Updated 23 February 2020

Pope appears to give thumbs down to Trump’s Middle East peace plan

  • Francis made his comments in the southern Italian port city of Bari
  • The Palestinians and Arab League foreign ministers have rejected the plan

BARI, Italy: Pope Francis on Sunday warned against “inequitable solutions” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying they would only be a prelude to new crises, in an apparent reference to US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace proposal.
Francis made his comments in the southern Italian port city of Bari, where he traveled to conclude a meeting of bishops from all countries in the Mediterranean basin.
“The Mediterranean region is currently threatened by outbreaks of instability and conflict, both in the Middle East and different countries of North Africa, as well as between various ethnic, religious or confessional groups,” Francis said.
“Nor can we overlook the still unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with the danger of inequitable solutions and, hence, a prelude to new crises,” he said.
The participants included Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, whose jurisdiction includes Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

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It was believed to be the first time the pope, who has often defended both Palestinian rights and Israel’s need for security, has spoken in public about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since Trump announced the plan on Jan. 28.
The plan would recognize Israel’s authority over West Bank Jewish settlements and require Palestinians meet a series of conditions for a state, with its capital in a West Bank village east of Jerusalem.
Although Trump’s stated aim was to end decades of conflict, his plan favored Israel, underlined by the Palestinians’ absence from his White House announcement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side.
The Palestinians and Arab League foreign ministers have rejected the plan and the Palestinian Authority has cut all ties with the United States and Israel.
Palestinians, with broad international backing, want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, while Israel views the whole city its “united and eternal” capital.
The pope expressed concern in 2018 when the United States announced the moving of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, saying the city’s “status quo” should be respected. Francis has called for all to honor UN resolutions on the city.
“There is no reasonable alternative to peace, because every attempt at exploitation or supremacy demeans both its author and its target. It shows a myopic grasp of reality, since it can offer no future to either of the two,” Francis said, speaking in general about the Middle East.
Francis again warned against populist politicians who he said used “demagogic terms” such as “invasion” when talking of migration.
“To be sure, acceptance and a dignified integration are stages in a process that is not easy. Yet it is unthinkable that we can address the problem by putting up walls,” he said.