Syria regime forces set to enter key rebel hub

Smoke billows following reported bombardment by Syrian regime forces on the outskirts of the strategic Maaret Al-Numan on the M5 highway on Sunday. (AFP)
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Updated 28 January 2020

Syria regime forces set to enter key rebel hub

  • Assad steps up campaign to retake northwest Idlib province
  • Tens of thousands fleeing northwestern Syria

NEAR MAARET AL-NUMAN, SYRIA: Syrian regime forces were poised Monday to enter Maaret Al-Numan, a town of symbolic and strategic importance in the country’s last major opposition bastion that is deserted after months of bombardment.
Maaret Al-Numan is a strategic prize lying on the M5 highway linking Damascus to Syria’s second city Aleppo, a main artery coveted by the regime. It is also the second biggest city in the beleaguered northwestern province of Idlib, the last stronghold of anti-regime forces and home to some three million people — half of them displaced by violence in other areas.
Damascus loyalists have since Friday seized around 18 towns and villages around the city, reaching its eastern outskirts, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday.
They have also cut a section of the M5 leading north from Maaret Al-Numan to Idlib city, the Observatory and the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper reported.
Retaking full control of the highway is essential to the government’s efforts to rekindle a moribund economy. The fighting has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes, with hundreds of vehicles on Monday packing a road leading out of the flashpoint region under heavy bombardment.
“Maaret Al-Numan is nearly besieged,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman, explaining that regime forces were now stationed south, east and north of the city.
Abdel Rahman said Damascus loyalists were now pushing from the west and northwest in a bid to tighten the noose around the opposition holdout.
An AFP correspondent in the region said regime forces were also trying to reach the city’s southwestern edges to prevent rebels and extremists from falling back.
Idlib and nearby areas of Aleppo and Latakia provinces are dominated by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) extremist group, led by members of the country’s former Al-Qaeda franchise.
In recent months, the regime of President Bashar Assad has chipped away territory under extremists’ control in the four provinces, despite several cease-fire agreements.
Assad has repeatedly vowed to reassert control over the whole of Syria.
An AFP correspondent said Maaret Al-Numan had become a ghost town, but the Observatory maintained that some civilians had remained in the area despite the escalation.
Fearing further regime advances, residents of several towns and villages located north of Maarat Al-Numan, have started to flee, the Observatory and an AFP correspondent said.
Pick-up trucks carrying entire families from the town of Saraqib and the Jabal Al-Zawiya region packed a road leading north toward the border with Turkey, said an AFP correspondent.
The vehicles were crammed with mattresses, clothes and household appliances, many belonging to families who had previously fled Maaret Al-Numan.


Turkey raises migrant pressure on EU over Syria conflict

Updated 29 February 2020

Turkey raises migrant pressure on EU over Syria conflict

  • Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in the Idlib region on Thursday
  • Erdogan may travel next week to Moscow for talks

PAZARKULE: Turkey vowed the Syrian regime will “pay a price” for dozens of dead Turkish soldiers and raised pressure on the EU over the conflict by threatening to let thousands of migrants enter the bloc.
Turkey and Russia, which back opposing forces in the Syria conflict, held high-level talks to try to defuse tensions that have sparked fears of a broader war and a new migration crisis for Europe.
Greek police clashed on Saturday with thousands of migrants who were already gathering on the border to try to enter Europe.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday vowed to allow refugees to travel on to Europe from Turkey which he said can no longer handle new waves of people fleeing war-torn Syria. It already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
The comments were his first after Turkish 34 troops were killed since Thursday in the northern Syria province of Idlib where Moscow-backed Syrian regime forces are battling to retake the last rebel holdout area.
“What did we do yesterday (Friday)? We opened the doors,” Erdogan said in Istanbul. “We will not close those doors ...Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises.”
He was referring to a 2016 deal with the European Union to stop refugee flows in exchange for billions of euros in aid.
In Athens, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held an emergency meeting to discuss tensions on the border with Turkey.
The Turkish leader said 18,000 migrants have amassed on the Turkish borders with Europe since Friday, adding that the number could reach as many as 30,000 on Saturday.
Thousands of migrants who remained stuck on the Turkish-Greek border were in skirmishes with Greek police on Saturday who fired tear gas to push them back, according to AFP photographer in the western province of Edirne.
The migrants massed at the Pazarkule border crossing responded by hurling stones at the police.
In 2015, Greece became the main EU entry point for one million migrants, most of them refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. The pressure to cope with the influx split the European Union.
“Greece yesterday came under an organized, mass, illegal attack... a violation of our borders and endured it,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Saturday after the emergency meeting with Mitsotakis.
“We averted more than 4,000 attempts of illegal entrance to our land borders.”
A Greek police source said security forces fired tear gas Saturday morning against migrants massing on the Turkish side because the migrants had set fires and opened holes in the border fences.
Armed policemen and soldiers are patrolling the Evros river shores — a common crossing point — and are warning with loudspeakers not to enter Greek territory.
Greek authorities were also using drones to monitor the migrants moves.
Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos told Skai television the situation was under control
“I believe that the borders have been protected,” he said.
According to Hellenic Coast Guard, from early Friday to early Saturday 180 migrants reached the islands of Eastern Aegean, Lesbos and Samos in sea crossings.
The UN said nearly a million people — half of them children — have been displaced in the bitter cold by the fighting in northwest Syria since December.
Turkey said that Turkish forces destroyed a “chemical warfare facility,” just south of Aleppo, in retaliation its soldiers were killed by Syrian regime fire in Idlib.
“As of last night, we blew up a depot housing seven chemical products,” Erdogan said. “We would not want things to reach this point but as they force us to do this, they will pay a price.”
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on sources inside the war-torn country, said that Turkey instead hit a military airport in eastern Aleppo, where the monitoring group says there are no chemical weapons.
Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in the Idlib on Thursday, the biggest Turkish military loss on the battlefield in recent years. A 34th Turkish soldier has since died.
The latest incident has raised further tensions between Ankara and Moscow, whose relationship has been tested by violations of a 2018 deal to prevent a regime offensive on Idlib.
As part of the agreement, Ankara set up 12 observation posts in the province but Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces — backed by Russian air power — have pressed on with a relentless campaign to take back the remaining chunks of the territory.
On Friday, Erdogan spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in a bid to scale down the tensions, with the Kremlin saying the two expressed “serious concern” about the situation.
Erdogan may travel next week to Moscow for talks, according to the Kremlin.
Despite being on opposite ends of the war, Turkey, which backs several rebel groups in Syria, and key regime ally Russia are trying to find a political solution.
The United States and the United Nations have called for an end to the Syrian offensive in Idlib and the deadly flare-up raising fresh concerns for civilians caught up in the escalation of the eight-year civil war.