JEDDAH: Assad regime forces advanced on Sunday to within 1km of a key opposition-held town in northern Syria, after Russian airstrikes forced thousands of civilians to flee toward the border with Turkey.
In a renewed offensive over the past two days, Syrian troops captured at least six villages near the strategic town of Maaret Al-Numan in the northwestern province of Idlib. Their target is to control a critical north-south highway that passes through the town, and has been held by the opposition since 2012.
Regime forces “have now reached the edge of the city and are ... within gunfire range of part of the highway,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.
Witnesses described Maaret Al-Numan as “a ghost town” after weeks of pounding by Russian fighter jets and Syrian warplanes.
Maaret Al-Numan is about 33km south of Idlib city on the M5 highway between Damascus and Aleppo. In August, Syrian troops captured Khan Sheikhoun, another town on the highway. Their next target is likely to be Saraqeb, the road’s last major urban center outside government control.
Opening the highway would reduce travel time between Damascus and Aleppo by two hours, since drivers must currently take a longer desert road.
About 400,000 people from Idlib province have fled north toward the Turkish border because of the surge in violence. Turkey already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees and fears that millions more could cross the border.
Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Latakiya provinces are controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a militant umbrella group led by members of Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Russia and the Assad regime claim they are fighting extremists who have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo city, but rescue workers and rights groups say airstrikes have hit civilian areas.
“The army’s response will include devastating field operations that will not cease until the remnants of armed terrorism are uprooted,” a Syrian military source said.