Syrian Regime Eyes Iblib After Defeat Of Daesh

Beirut: Syrian regime forces and allied militiamen are advancing on the largest remaining rebel-held territory in the country’s north, forcing thousands of civilians to flee toward the border with Turkey in freezing winter temperatures.

The offensive on Idlib — a large province in northwestern Syria packed with civilians and dominated by Al Qaida-linked militants — was expected after the defeat of Daesh late last year.

Last week, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the main military operations against Daesh in Syria have ended and signalled that the focus would shift to Al Qaida-linked militants.

The Idlib offensive carries significant risks.

The province bordering Turkey is home to an estimated two million Syrians, including tens of thousands of people who fled fighting elsewhere. A full-blown regime offensive could cause large-scale destruction and massive displacement.

Turkey, a supporter of the rebels, has deployed military observers in the province as part of a de-escalation deal with Iran and Russia, but that has not stopped the fighting on the ground or Russian air strikes against the insurgents.

It is not clear how far the current offensive aims to reach, and recapturing the entire province is expected to be a long and bloody process. Opposition activists say the main target for now appears to be the sprawling rebel-held airbase of Abu Zuhour, on the southeastern edge of the province, and securing the Damascus-Aleppo road that cuts through Idlib province.

Over the past two months, troops backed by Russian air strikes have captured more than 80 towns and villages in the northern parts of the nearby Hama province and breached Idlib itself for the first time since mid-2015.

The offensive gained more intensity on Christmas Day, when one of Bashar Al Assad’s most trusted and experienced officers took command of the operation to extend the regime’s presence toward Idlib and boost security for the road that links the capital, Damascus, with Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

Brig. Gen. Suhail Al Hassan, also known among his troops as “Tiger,” has led elite forces to many victories against insurgents since the conflict began nearly seven years ago. “Conditions on the ground are wretched for the rebels,” said an opposition activist based in northern Syria who asked to be identified by his first name, Hassan, for fear of reprisals by insurgents. He said rebels are stuck in a two-front battle with regime forces and remaining pockets of Daesh militants. He said the Russian air strikes have exacted a heavy toll.

Another opposition activist based in Hama province, Mohammad Al Ali, said the Russians and the Syrian regime are “carpet bombing” villages before pushing into them.

“The Russian air strikes, weak fortifications and Daesh attacks in Hama” have all helped regime forces, he said by telephone.

Hassan and Al Ali said it is highly unlikely that regime forces would march toward the provincial capital, also named Idlib, because it would set up a costly battle with highly experienced and well-armed Al Qaida-linked insurgents. The province is dominated by the Levant Liberation Committee, which claims to have severed ties with al-Qaida but is widely believed to still be affiliated with it.

Al Hassan’s chief mission for now appears to be securing the Damascus-Aleppo road.

In December 2016, Al Assad’s forces captured rebel-held parts of the city of Aleppo, marking the regime’s biggest victory since the conflict began. The main road to the capital remained perilous, however, with insurgents attacking it from the west and Daesh from the east. The troops have since driven Daesh back, but the western side remains exposed.

Four days after Al Hassan took over operational command, troops managed to break through the militants’ heavy defences and capture the town of Abu Dali, a link between Hama, Idlib and Aleppo.

Since then, thousands of people have been fleeing with their belongings amid harsh cold weather toward safer areas further north, including Idlib city and areas near the border with Turkey. Pro-opposition media say that more than 5,000 families have fled the violence over the past two weeks, some renting homes or staying in tents in open fields, others left homeless.

Last week, regime forces advanced to within around 12 kilometres of Khan Sheikhoun, where a sarin nerve gas attack killed more than 90 people last year, prompting the US to launch a missile attack on Al Assad’s troops. Experts from the UN and other monitoring groups blamed the chemical attack on the regime, which denied responsibility.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the fighting through a network of activists, says that some 43 civilians, 57 militants and 46 pro-regime forces have been killed since the offensive led by Al Hassan began on Dec. 25.

“The regime wants to take the eastern part of Idlib province,” said the Observatory’s chief, Rami Abdul Rahman. “Their aim is to remove any threat to the road” between Damascus and Aleppo, he said.

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