Syrian government forces recapture key north-western town

Maaret al-Numan is on a key highway connecting Damascus and Aleppo and was one of the early centres for protests against Assad’s rule.
Sunday 02/02/2020

LONDON - The Syrian Army recaptured the strategic north-western Syrian town of Maaret al-Numan in a blow to last major bastion of the Syrian opposition.

Maaret al-Numan, which had been in control of jihadists and allied rebels, is in Idlib province along the key M5 highway connecting Damascus to Aleppo.

“Our forces managed in the past few days to stamp out terrorism in many villages and towns,” including Maaret al-Numan, a Syrian Army spokesman said.

Government forces have recaptured about 27 towns and villages in southern Idlib since January 24 and the army was committed to “hunting down all remaining armed terrorist groups until all Syrian soil has been cleansed of terrorism,” the spokesman said.

The capture of Maaret al-Numan January 29 holds symbolic importance, given its role as one of the early centres for protest against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s rule. In 2011, Maaret al-Numan was one of the first towns to revolt against the central government. It was captured one year later by rebels fighting government’s forces.

The Idlib region, along with nearby provinces Aleppo and Latakia, had been dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda offshoot.

Reports said the town had been bombed by the Syrian Army and its Russian allies for several months ahead of a recent troop surge that approached Maaret al-Numan on three sides.

Turkey, which backs some rebel groups in Idlib province, attempted to broker several ceasefires with Moscow to avert a Russia-backed Syrian advance. The agreement with Moscow on January 12 failed to materialise, prompting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accuse Moscow of not honouring the agreements.

It was a rare criticism from Erdogan, who has largely sought to ensure good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin since a 2016 rapprochement.

In comments carried by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, Erdogan said Turkish officials were discussing the situation in Idlib with Russian officials but warned that Turkey’s “patience was running thin.”

Erdogan said Turkey “would do whatever is necessary” if the Russian bombing in Idlib did not stop. Moscow, however, appeared disinclined to heed Turkey’s warning with Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya affirming the military advance.

“Russia supports the measures taken by the Syrian Army to get rid of the sources of these provocations and it is worried about the movement of terrorists from Idlib to other areas in Syria and to other countries of the world such as Afghanistan and Libya,” Nebenzya said at a UN meeting January 29.

Tens of thousands of civilians reportedly fled the Syrian Army advance on southern Idlib. Despite the army dropping leaflets telling civilians to avoid air strikes by moving south to reconcile with government forces, indications were that most headed north towards the Turkish border.

Turkey, home to approximately 3.6 million Syrians, indicated an unwillingness to open its borders to more refugees.

Aid groups have warned that the Syrian military advance in Idlib was compounding the humanitarian crisis in the country. The United Nations said violence in north-western Syria has displaced more than 388,000 civilians since December.

“Unless the current hostilities stop, we will see an even greater humanitarian catastrophe,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council on January 29.