WASHINGTON - Syrian government forces Sunday took control of several villages in the northwestern province of Idlib and the neighboring province of Aleppo, in a continuing push to retake territory from rebels.
Local sources reported that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime captured several villages near the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, while advancing on the villages of Maarat Al-Ateeq, Babis and several others in Aleppo's northwestern countryside, which had been under the control of Syrian rebels for nearly eight years.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has researchers across the war-torn country, said that fierce clashes continued Sunday between Syrian government troops on one side and rebel fighters and jihadist militants on the other.
State news agency SANA also reported rapid advances by Syrian troops "against terrorist groups" by expanding their operations on multiple fronts in the northwestern countryside of Aleppo and several parts of Idlib. State-run media in Syria refers to all armed groups in the country as terrorists.
This fighting comes two days after Syrian government forces seized control of the M5 highway, which connects the capital Damascus in the south to Aleppo in the north. The northern part of the strategic road had been under rebel control since the beginning of Syria's war in 2012.
Supported by Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias, Syrian regime forces for months have been trying to take control of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.
Idlib province has been home to nearly 3 million people. But the ongoing Syrian-led offensive has displaced more than 800,000 residents from Idlib, according to the U.N.
Idlib is largely controlled by the Islamist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. Other Turkish-backed rebels also have a presence in the northwestern Syrian province.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said at a news conference Saturday that the presence of thousands of jihadists in Idlib "does not justify the indiscriminate bombardment of the civilian population."
"What is needed now as a matter of humanitarian concern for the people of Idlib and as a matter of basic avoidance of another refugee crisis, is firm pressure on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to stop," he said.
Since the beginning of Syria's eight-year conflict, Russia has been a staunch supporter of Assad's government.
Offensive to continue
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a researcher at Swansea University in Wales who studies militant groups in Syria, says despite international calls for halting the assault in Syria's northwest, Syrian troops are likely to continue their push.
"There might be some pause in the fighting, but that will only be of a temporary nature," he told VOA, adding that, "this is a campaign to retake all of Idlib.
"The next immediate step for Syrian regime troops is moving to Aleppo's western countryside," he said.
Parts of Aleppo's rural areas along the border with Idlib are under the control of rebel fighters.
Turkey, which backs the Syrian rebel fighters, has expressed concerns about a new humanitarian crisis that could emerge on Turkey's border with Syria if no cease-fire is achieved in Idlib.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Sunday that a Turkish delegation was to visit Moscow Monday to discuss the situation in Idlib.
Shadi al-Abdullah, a Syrian journalist based in Turkey, says given the lack of support from Turkey's international allies, Ankara has limited options with respect to Idlib.
"For the Turks, it is either going into a military confrontation with forces that want Idlib to return to Assad or preserving what's left from areas under the opposition control in Idlib and Aleppo's countryside," he told VOA.
But a direct military confrontation at this point would be unlikely, he said.
Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of a 2018 deal with Russia. The deal required Ankara to remove all extremist groups from the province, some of which are tied to the al-Qaida terrorist group. In exchange the Syrian government agreed to delay a long-planned military offensive on Idlib.
But Turkey allegedly has failed to implement its part of the deal and thus the regime backed by Russia in April 2019 proceeded with its original plan of launching a full-scale military offensive to recapture Idlib from rebel forces.
Some of the Turkish posts were recently overrun by advancing Syrian government forces. Syrian government attacks have reportedly killed 13 Turkish soldiers in Idlib this month.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said that if Syrian troops didn't withdraw from its positions in Idlib by the end of February, Turkey would take military action.
Mapping Major Foreign Forces in Syria Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011, has drawn in several foreign powers to the country, including the United States, Russia, Iran and Turkey. Here is a map of where the four main foreign players are in the Syrian territory.
Ankara has already deployed thousands of troops and military vehicles across the border into Idlib to reinforce its current military presence there.
U.S. officials have condemned the Syrian government's offensive on Idlib, expressing Washington's support for Turkey after its forces came under attack by Syrian troops.
"The United States once again condemns the continued, unjustifiable, and ruthless assaults on the people of Idlib," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a recent statement.
"We stand by our NATO ally Turkey in the aftermath of the attack, which resulted in the death of multiple Turkish personnel serving at an observation post used for coordination and de-escalation, and fully support Turkey's justified self-defense actions in response," Pompeo added.