Syrian government forces recaptured a strategic northwestern highway town from extremist and allied rebels Wednesday, in the latest blow to the country’s last major opposition bastion.
Maaret Al Numan lies on a key highway connecting the capital Damascus to second city Aleppo.
The M5 artery has long been in the sights of the government as it seeks to revive a moribund economy ravaged by almost nine years of war.
“Our forces managed in the past few days to stamp out terrorism in many villages and towns,” including Maaret Al Numan, an army spokesman said.
The region, which hosts some three million people, is dominated by extremists from Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate, but allied rebels are also present.
The government has slowly chipped away at the south of the bastion, despite several deals between government ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey intended to avert a broad military offensive.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Moscow on Wednesday of “not honouring these agreements”.
It was a rare critical remark from Erdogan who has largely sought to keep good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin since a 2016 rapprochement.
‘Even greater catastrophe’
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the government’s advance on the south of the province in recent weeks, seeking safety closer to the Turkish border further north.
The violence in the northwest has displaced more than 388,000 civilians since December, the United Nations says.
At least 20,000 of them have moved in the last two days, said UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock on Wednesday.
“Unless the current hostilities stop, we will see an even greater humanitarian catastrophe,” he told the UN Security Council.
Aid groups have warned the latest violence is compounding one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the nine-year war.
The Syrian army, which now control around 70 per cent of Syria, have repeatedly vowed to retake the entire country, including Idlib.
After Maaret Al Numan’s recapture, the Syrian army was bent on continuing the fight “until all Syrian soil has been cleansed of terrorism”, it said in a statement.
On Wednesday, loyalist forces swept the town for booby traps and unexploded ordnance after all rebels were either killed or withdrew, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The town was once a defiant hotspot for anti-Assad protests, drawing in crowds from surrounding villages, but today its streets are largely empty.
It is home to a museum of Roman and Byzantine-era mosaics, which volunteers sought to protect with sandbags through years of war.
What remains of rebel-held territory includes more than half of Idlib province, as well as slivers of adjacent Aleppo and Latakia.
The Syrian army and rebels were locked in clashes in the south of Aleppo province on Wednesday, the Britain-based observatory said.
State news agency SANA said the army on Wednesday gained ground against rebels and extremists in the al-Rashideen area in the province’s west.
To the north of Maaret Al Numan, the front line had been pushed back to within 10 kilometres of Saraqeb, the next town on the M5 highway, its director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The army has recaptured around 27 towns and villages from their rivals in southern Idlib since January 24.