Syrian regime forces have captured and entered the key town of Maarat Al-Nu’man in the opposition-held Idlib province in north-west Syria.
The regime’s military and loyalist militias clashed with opposition forces as they made the advance into the town, following a barrage of Russian air strikes. The regime’s Syrian Arab News Agency reported government forces as having “liberated most of the town’s districts.”
Maarat Al-Nu’man, the second largest town in Idlib province, which is the last major opposition stronghold in the country, lies on the prominent M5 highway that links the city of Aleppo in northern Syria to the capital Damascus in the south.
The capture of the major town comes after a weekend of rapid advancements made by the regime in the province, including taking control of ten towns and villages in less than 48 hours. Yesterday’s advancement increased the number to 28.
Since April last year, the regime has led a campaign of constant aerial bombardment of the province with Russian support in an effort to recapture it. The campaign came despite the deal between Turkey and Russia in September 2018 to make Idlib a de-escalation zone in which civilians could live safe from the conflict.
With much of the country having been recaptured by the regime, and consequently many of the citizens again being subject to its suppression and torture, Idlib has long been in Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s sight. Throughout much of last year, however, the regime made little progress in retaking it from the opposition until Russian ground troops and Iranian forces became involved, helping Assad to advance into much of the province and capture many cities and areas.
As the campaign by the Assad regime made gains, Turkey has become particularly concerned over the situation, prompting its Defence Ministry to say that if any of Turkey’s observation posts in Idlib are attacked by regime forces, the Turkish military would retaliate “in the strongest way, without hesitation”.
The town’s capture also comes despite the fact that a ceasefire took effect on 12 January, in which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that “This time, the situation is different.” Half a month later, the Syrian regime’s continued advance has put Turkey in a complex position. As an actor in the conflict, it is particularly concerned about the fall of Idlib, as it would result in the pushing of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to the Turkish border at a time when the country is already hosting around four million evacuees.