|Date: Aug 21, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Syria militants flee rebel town as army advances|
|BEIRUT: The main insurgent group in the Syrian province of Idlib pulled out of a key rebel town as government forces advanced in the area Tuesday amid intense bombardment and airstrikes, a militant group and opposition activists said. As the militants withdrew, government troops moved into northern and western neighborhoods of Khan Sheikhoun, marking a significant gain for President Bashar Assad’s forces as they try to chip away at territory controlled by the opposition in Idlib. The northwestern province, dominated by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, is the last major rebel-held bastion in Syria.|
“The victories that were achieved show the determination of the people and the army to strike terrorists, until all parts of Syria are liberated,” Assad said, according to comments released by his office.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a pro-Damascus military source said insurgents had withdrawn from Khan Sheikhoun overnight, though the main insurgent group in the area said rebels still held part of the town and fighting continued. The pro-Damascus military source told Reuters the town was under army control after the rebels were caught in a pincer movement and fled.
“There are some pockets and explosive devices, there are a few who refuse to withdraw and want to die,” the source said.
The Observatory said rebels had withdrawn from their last piece of territory in neighboring Hama province in addition to Khan Sheikhoun. HTS denied this and said the battle continued. The militant group said in a statement that its fighters carried out “a redeployment,” withdrawing to areas south of the town of Khan Sheikhoun. From there, they would continue to defend the territory, it said.Syrian state TV said government troops have expanded their presence in the Khan Sheikhoun area, without giving further details.
Another alliance, the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front rebels, said that as a result of bombardment in the northern Hama area its forces had left positions that had become difficult to supply and had redeployed to others.
Rebel fighters “did not leave an inch of land before making the enemy taste great calamities,” it said in a statement.
Both the Observatory and the pro-Damascus military source said Syrian rebels had pulled back to a Turkish military position in the town of Morek, south of Khan Sheikhoun in Hama province.
The latest government gains come as NATO allies Turkey and the U.S. are discussing setting up a buffer inside Syria - one that Ankara wants to push Syrian Kurdish fighters it considers terrorists further to the east.
There has been speculation, meanwhile, that Russia and Turkey, which back rival sides in Syria’s conflict, have reached an agreement that would allow the Syrian army to retake parts of Idlib and reopen a highway that links the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest. Khan Sheikhoun, which had been held by militants since 2014, sits on that highway.
After the capture of Khan Sheikhoun, Syrian troops are likely now to move north toward Maaret al-Numan, another town on the highway that has been subjected to intense airstrikes over the past days. Opposition activists also reported intense bombardment on the rebel-held town of Jisr al-Shughur on the southwestern edge of Idlib Tuesday.
Backed by Russian air power, Syrian troops were able to enter parts of Khan Sheikhoun overnight, according to opposition activists, and are now clearing the area abandoned by militants of explosives and booby traps.
“After fierce bombardment by the criminal enemy that avoids direct confrontation with holy warriors by implementing a scorched earth policy, our fighters have redeployed south of Khan Sheikhoun,” the statement said.
According to the Observatory, Khan Sheikhoun was home to about 1 million people, nearly 700,000 of them displaced by fighting in other parts of the country, before the government offensive began in April. In recent days hundreds of civilians remained in the town according to the group that tracks Syria’s war, now in its ninth year.
The Syrian Response Coordination Group, a relief group active in northwestern Syria, called Tuesday for a “humanitarian truce” to allow civilians who are stuck in the areas of fighting to leave. The group said in a statement the Russia and Syrian governments “are practicing terrorism against civilians” in violation of international laws.
Also Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned the Syrian government against “playing with fire,” a day after an airstrike targeted a Turkish army convoy near Khan Sheikhoun, killing 3 civilians. Cavusoglu said the convoy was on its way to provide “security” to a Turkish observation post in Idlib. Syria said the convoy was carrying ammunition to rebels.
“We will do what is necessary for the security of our soldiers ... but we are working to avoid reaching that point,” he said.