BEIRUT: The Syrian army said yesterday it had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside and it would press on with its campaign to wipe out militant groups “wherever they are found”. The advances were made after President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces drove insurgents from the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, reopening the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years in a big strategic gain for Assad.
Backed by heavy Russian air strikes, the government forces have been fighting since the start of the year to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province where anti-Assad insurgents hold their last strongholds. Government air strikes yesterday hit Darat Izza, near the Turkish border about 30 km north of Aleppo city, wounding several civilians and forcing two hospitals to close, according to hospital staff.
Wtnesses also reported air strikes in southern areas of Idlib province. The advances have sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey in the biggest single displacement of the nine-year-old war. It has also upset the fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict. Turkey and Russia began a new round of talks in Moscow on Monday after several demands by Ankara that Assad’s forces should back down and a ceasefire be put in place.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that militant attacks on Russian bases and Syrian positions have continued and “it is not possible to leave this unanswered”. “Troops from Russia and Turkey on the ground in Syria, in Idlib, are in constant contact with each other, looking at changes in the conditions. They have a full understanding of each other,” said Lavrov. However, the Syrian armed forces said in a statement they would push on with what they called their “sacred and noble task to rid what remains of terrorist organizations wherever on Syria’s geography they are found”.
They had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside, they said. Pro-Damascus Al-Watan newspaper said the M5 highway, a vital artery in northern Syria, would be ready for civilian use by the end of the week. Aleppo city, once Syria’s economic hub, was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war between 2012 and 2016.
The Syrian army had also opened the international roadway from northern Aleppo to the towns of Zahraa and Nubl towards the Turkish border, a military news service run by Lebanon’s Assad-allied pro-Damascus Hezbollah group said. The insurgent forces arrayed against Assad include Western-backed rebels and jihadist militants.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his military will drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw from Idlib by the end of the month. On Saturday, he appeared to move that date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the month if there was no pull-back. Alarmed by the new refugee crisis on its border, Turkey has sent thousands of troops and hundreds of convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has called for Russia to end its support for the Syrian regime’s “atrocities” as he expressed US concern over violence in the Idlib region, the White House said Sunday. Turkey’s foreign minister also pressed his Russian counterpart over the attacks by Damascus on the last rebel-held bastion in the country. Backed by Russian air power, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made fresh gains Sunday as he intensified his assault on the holdout northwestern province of Idlib.
In a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump “expressed concern over the violence in Idlib, Syria and… conveyed the United States’ desire to see an end to Russia’s support for the Assad regime’s atrocities.” Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of a 2018 deal reached between Ankara and Moscow to prevent a regime offensive, but Syrian regime forces have pressed ahead regardless.
Four of the Turkish posts are believed to be encircled by Syrian forces, and Ankara has threatened to attack Damascus if they do not retreat by the end of February. “I stressed that the attacks in Idlib must stop and it was necessary to establish a lasting ceasefire that would not be violated,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told journalists at the Munich Security Conference, after he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Rebel supporter Turkey and Damascus ally Russia have worked closely on Syria in recent years despite being on opposing sides of the nine-year conflict. A Turkish delegation will head to Moscow, after Russian officials visited Ankara last weekend but failed to reach a concrete deal. War monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said regime forces “were in control of all the villages and small towns around Aleppo for the first time since 2012.”
Regime forces have for weeks been making gains in northwestern Syria and chipping away at territory held by jihadists and allied rebels, focusing their latest operations on the west of Aleppo province. The Russian-backed offensive has triggered the largest wave of displacement in Syria’s civil war, with 800,000 people fleeing since it began in December, the United Nations has said. Backed by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, Assad’s forces now control more than 70 percent of Syria and the president has repeatedly vowed to retake the entire country. – Agencies