Thousands flee north-west Syria as Assad pushes closer to Idlib city
Syrian government forces have increased campaign to recapture Idlib province
A renewed drive by President Bashar Al Assad to recapture rebel-held territory in Syria’s north-west sent thousands of civilians fleeing towards Turkey’s border on Monday amid heavy air strikes.
Syrian government forces have intensified a campaign to recapture Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold where millions took refuge after fleeing other parts of Syria in its nearly nine-year civil war.
A collection of leaked audio recordings also showed Iran-backed militias spearheading efforts to recapture the regions symbolic town of Maaret Al Numan.
The recordings, leaked to the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, reveal that despite the death of Qassem Suleimani, the general who led Iran’s Quds force carrying out operations on foreign soil, Iranian soldiers and allied militias are directing military operations on the ground in Idlib.
The intercepted radio transmissions contain messages between members of the Fatemiyoun Division, an Iran-backed group of Afghan fighters which has been supporting the Assad regime since 2013.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said Mr Al Assad’s forces had since Friday taken control of 22 towns and cut through a highway in Idlib that links the capital Damascus to Aleppo in northern Syria.
It said the Syrian army had encircled and was close to capturing Maarat Al Numan, an urban centre 33 kilometres south of Idlib city. This would mark a significant advance for Mr Al Assad’s drive to take back all of Syria.
A rescue worker who posted a video from Maarat Al Numan said the city had been devastated by an assault of barrel bombs, missiles and shelling in recent days, which laid waste to scores of homes and vital infrastructure.
“Maarat Al Numan is completely destroyed and its population has been displaced and is living in uncertainty,” said the civil defence force worker.
Damascus and its allies say they are fighting militants who have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo, but rights groups and rescue workers say air strikes have demolished hospitals, schools and other civilian areas.
The renewed fighting comes despite a January 12 ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides of the conflict.
Fouad Issa, an aid worker with the Violet Organisation in northern Syria, said Mr Al Assad’s latest campaign has frightened Syrians in the rebel enclave, who fear death or arrest if their towns are recaptured.
“Over the past few days we have seen thousands of new internally displaced persons and we are talking here at the very least about 50,000 over the past four days,” Mr Issa said.
A witness said that thousands on Monday fled from the Idlib towns of Ariha and Saraqib, with lorries and cars crawling in gridlocked traffic toward areas, including the town of Azaz, close to the Turkish border.
The Observatory estimated about 120,000 people had fled from countryside around Aleppo and Idlib over the past 12 days.
Aid workers said most have moved to relatively safer parts of northern Syria near the Turkish frontier.
Turkey, which backs some rebel groups opposed to Mr Al Assad, already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees and fears that millions more could soon cross the border.
Updated: January 28, 2020 12:50 PM