Syrian pro-government forces surrounded a key town in rebel-held Idlib province Tuesday, hours after rebels withdrew from the area.
The government’s advance into the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which had been in rebel hands since 2014, constitutes a major blow to the opposition; during the eight years of the country’s civil war, it has lost all of its territories except Idlib.
“Since midnight, Khan Sheikhoun is in the regime’s hands,” said Mohammad Juneid, a worker with the opposition’s Syria Civil Defense group.
Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition war monitor, confirmed the withdrawal Tuesday, as did a number of other media activists and a rebel commander.
But Hayat Tahrir al Sham, an Al Qaeda-linked rebel alliance that had dominated Idlib and led the town’s defense along with other extremist groups and rebel factions supported by Turkey and Western countries, said its “mujahideen had redeployed” south of the city while maintaining their presence in Idlib’s southern pocket.
Turkey had dispatched columns of tanks and armored cars across its southern border with Idlib on Monday to bolster the rebels’ flagging cadres. But the convoy was struck by Syrian government warplanes, Ankara said, halting its progress. Officials in Damascus condemned the Turkish incursion as “an encroachment” on Syrian national sovereignty.
On Tuesday, the convoy was still in a village north of Khan Sheikhoun, Abdul Rahman said, while Syrian government forces encircled a Turkish observation post in the town of Morek, five miles to the southeast.
Turkish officials said the convoy had mobilized to protect one of the Turkish army’s observation posts in Idlib, warning Damascus not to conduct further attacks. “The regime needs to not play with fire,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at a news conference in Ankara. “We will do whatever it takes to secure our troops.”
Khan Sheikhoun’s fall to the government comes after months of punishing attacks on Idlib, despite a deal in September between Turkey and Russia (Moscow supports Syrian President Bashar Assad) that halted a large-scale government assault on the province, while designating much of the rebels’ territory a demilitarized zone.
The agreement also stipulated that extremist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al Sham, would leave the area. Those terms were never fulfilled, and that became the government’s justification for the new onslaught, this time with Russian support, said Al Watan, a pro-government Syrian daily, “after Moscow had given all available opportunities to Ankara to fulfill promises it was clear from the beginning it could not keep.”
The United Nations estimates that since hostilities intensified four months ago, about 500 civilians have been killed and 400,000 people have been displaced, many of them people who had already been forced to abandon their homes once before.
Khan Sheikhoun has long been a target of government offensives. The town was the site of an alleged sarin chemical weapons attack in 2017, which spurred President Trump to launch military strikes on Syrian government bases.
Its loss means the rebels no longer control a portion of a key north-south highway that forms the spine of Syria’s transportation network, and which was used by the rebels as their main supply line to areas they controlled in Idlib and the province of Hama.
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