BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces captured two northwestern villages in an intensified offensive on the last opposition-held part of the country, inching closer to the town of Kfar Zeita which has been held by fighters since 2012, opposition activists and state media reported on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, neighboring Turkey reiterated threats to attack northeastern Syria to push back US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces there — even as Turkish and US officials held in Ankara on establishing a so-called “safe zone” within Syria.
The two developments — the Syrian regime offensive and Turkey’s threats — herald new escalations in Syria’s civil war, now in its ninth year.
The Syrian forces first captured the village of Arbaeen overnight, then the nearby Zakat early in the morning as part of their offensive on Idlib province, the last remaining major opposition stronghold in Syria.
The developments were reported by the regime-controlled Syrian Central Military Media and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group.
Earlier this week, the Syrian military forces announced it was resuming an offensive on the opposition-held northwest, accusing insurgents of violating the latest truce there.
If the army keeps pushing into the northwest, Syrian forces could get in contact with Turkish troops that man 12 observation posts along the border of Idlib. The closest Turkish point is in Morek, about 12 km east of Zakat.
Syrian troops have been attacking Idlib and a stretch of land around it controlled by insurgents since April 30. The three months of airstrikes and shelling have displaced some 400,000 and left more than 2,000 people dead on both sides.
Zakat and Arbaeen were controlled by Jaish Al-Izza, one of the main opposition groups in northern parts of the central province of Hama.
The Observatory said “regime forces are at the gates” of Kfar Zeita now, adding that fighting in the two villages killed 18 fighters and 10 pro-regime troops.
Kfar Zeita is one of the largest towns in the northern parts of Hama province and lies on the edge of Idlib, which is home to some 3 million people, many of them internally displaced by fighting elsewhere in Syria. Kfar Zeita and the nearby town of Latamneh appear to be main targets of the latest regime offensive.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch reported in 2014 that it has strong evidence that Syrian army helicopters dropped bombs carrying chlorine gas on three opposition-held towns, including Kfar Zeita.
Also Wednesday, Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said his country would like to establish a so-called “safe zone” in northeast Syria jointly with the US but will act alone if necessary. Akar spoke as Turkish and US military officials continued to hold talks in Ankara over the zone.
He said the talks were progressing in a “positive” manner, adding that the American officials’ views were “moving closer” to Turkey’s.
Ankara wants to control — in coordination with the US — a 19-25 mile-deep zone east of the Euphrates River in Syria, and wants no Syrian Kurdish forces there. Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists aligned with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Turkey has threatened to attack this part of Syria to push back the US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces, known as Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
Also on Wednesday, Syrian state news agency SANA reported that a car bomb exploded in the SDF-controlled northern village of Qahtaniyeh, killing several people and wounding others.