(Reuters) – Syrian government forces took control of a town south of Idlib city on Tuesday in a significant advance for President Bashar al-Assad as he seeks to recapture rebel-held territory in the country’s northwest, a war monitor and state media said.
Assad’s campaign to regain Idlib province, the last rebel bastion in a nearly nine-year-long civil war, has sparked a new exodus of thousands of civilians towards the border of Turkey, which backs some insurgent groups fighting Assad.
Syrian state broadcaster al-Ikhbariya said government forces entered Maarat al-Numan, 33 km (20 miles) south of Idlib city, on Tuesday and were combing its districts while advancing further into the town. The state news agency SANA said later the army had “liberated most of the town’s districts”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said via WhatsApp that government forces “took full control” of Maarat al-Numan, the second largest town in Idlib province, after entering it backed by Russian air strikes.
The renewed fighting comes despite a Jan. 12 ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides of the conflict. Turkey already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees and fears millions more could soon cross the frontier.
Maarat al-Numan is located on the main highway in Idlib linking the capital Damascus with Aleppo in northern Syria.
Turkey’s Defence Ministry said Turkish forces would retaliate “in the strongest way, without hesitation” against any attack on its observation posts in Idlib province by Assad’s forces. (Reporting by Reuters team; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
Photo: © ASSOCIATED PRESS Syrians drive through the city of al-Mastouma, in Idlib province, as they flee a government offensive, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. Syrian government forces have been on the offensive for more than a month in the northwestern 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. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed)