AFP Maaret al-Noman
Militants and allied rebels withdrew from a key area of northwestern Syria yesterday, a war monitor said, as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces pressed an offensive against the militant-run Idlib region.
Turkey warned Damascus “not to play with fire” after the advance saw government fighters almost encircle a patch of countryside including an important Turkish monitoring post.
After eight years of civil war, the Idlib region on the border with Turkey is the last major stronghold of opposition to Assad’s Russia-backed government.
Since January, it has been administered by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which is led by fighters from Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate.
The region of some 3mn was supposed to be protected by a buffer zone deal signed last September by Moscow and rebel backer Ankara, but government and Russian forces have subjected it to heavy bombardment since late April, killing almost 880 civilians.
And in recent weeks, regime forces have inched forward at the southern edges of the bastion.
In the early hours of yesterday, anti-Assad fighters pulled back from the town of Khan Sheikun and the countryside to its south, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
The withdrawal means a Turkish observation point in the nearby town of Morek, as well as a string of surrounding villages, are effectively surrounded by government forces, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
All roads leading out of the area are either controlled by government forces or within range of their guns, he said.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country had no intention to remove the post from Morek.
“We will do whatever is necessary to ensure the security of our soldiers and observation posts,” he said.
An HTS spokesman, meanwhile, denied its forces had withdrawn from the countryside around Morek, adding they had regrouped in the south of Khan Sheikhun after heavy bombardment.
Russia claimed rebel attacks against a key Russian air base to the west of Idlib and on regime-held civilian areas had continued despite the presence of the Turkish posts. “We have warned our Turkish colleagues that we would respond,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Khan Sheikhun lies on the highway connecting Damascus to second city Aleppo, which has long been a key government objective.
On Monday, a Turkish military convoy crossed the border into Idlib and headed south along the highway, drawing condemnation from Damascus.
Ankara alleged an air strike had targeted its troops, while a Syrian pro-government newspaper said regime aircraft had targeted a rebel vehicle leading them.
Analyst Samuel Ramani said the government’s accusation that Turkey was supporting its opponents could provide a “pretext for further Syrian army incursions”. But “for Russia, holding the Astana coalition together is a chief priority,” he said.
Yesterday, the convoy was at a standstill just north of Khan Sheikhun, after government forces to the south cut the road into the town the previous day.
An AFP correspondent said air strikes and machinegun fire from government helicopters peppered the road leading back north.
Air raids continued on areas north of Khan Sheikhun yesterday, including in the town of Binin where the AFP reporter saw a man pulled from the rubble alive.
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