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)
Short Url
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.


Lebanon repatriates nationals in rare flights despite virus

Updated 9 min 3 sec ago

Lebanon repatriates nationals in rare flights despite virus

  • Health personnel in protective gear took the temperature of disembarking passengers
  • Authorities said more than 20,000 had signed up to be repatriated in total this week and at the end of the month

BEIRUT: Lebanon on Sunday started repatriating nationals stranded abroad in its first flight in weeks since it closed its international airport to stem the novel coronavirus.
The first of four planes touched down at the Beirut international airport late Sunday morning bringing in 78 passengers from Riyadh, local television reported.
It showed health personnel in protective gear taking the temperature of disembarking passengers.
The Mediterranean country announced a lockdown and closed its airport on March 18 as part of measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has officially infected 527 people and killed 18 nationwide.
An AFP photographer saw a dozen buses outside the airport waiting to transport the passengers.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab had arrived earlier amid heavy deployment of the Lebanese army, he said.
Authorities said more than 20,000 had signed up to be repatriated in total this week and at the end of the month.
Lebanese carrier Middle East Airlines has said flights would also land in Beirut on Sunday from Abu Dhabi, Lagos and Abidjan.
It has also announced return trips to Paris, Madrid and Kinshasa on Tuesday.
Lebanese returning home must either test negative for the virus no longer than three days before their return, or be tested immediately upon arrival, according to government guidelines.
They must pay for their own ticket and their families are not allowed to meet them at the airport.
The government has said priority will be given to those with critical health conditions such as diabetes or cancer, those aged over 60 and under 18, and families.
But critics have complained of steep ticket fares, while a financial crisis has severely restricted transactions from Lebanese bank accounts.
Coronavirus is the latest crisis to hit Lebanon, which is already reeling under a crumbling economy.
Due to an acute liquidity crisis, banks have since September increasingly been restricting access to dollars and have halted money transfers abroad.
On Monday, however, the banking association agreed to allow dollar transfers to Lebanese students outside the country to help them face the coronavirus pandemic, the finance ministry said.
Diab on Sunday told reporters the government was studying the possibility of supporting returning Lebanese students with a ticket.
Lebanese expatriates and activists have clamoured online for MEA to lower the price of its tickets and help those who can’t afford it.
The airline on Friday claimed tickets were more expensive — $650 for an economy class seat from Riyadh and $1,800 for a cheaper fare from Abidjan for example — because planes would be empty on the way out to evacuations.