Syrian forces advance towards the strategic city of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (VOP TODAY NEWS) — After more than three months of escalating its shelling in areas in northwestern Syria, regime forces with Russian air cover are advancing on the ground inside Idlib province to control the strategic city of Khan Sheikhoun in its southern countryside.

Since 30 April, Idlib and parts of neighboring provinces have been subjected to an escalation in shelling by regime forces and their Russian ally. The regime forces have intensified for nearly a week their combat operations in the southern countryside of Idlib, after the majority of the clashes were confined to the neighboring northern countryside of Hama since the escalation began.

Regime forces are trying to advance to the city of Khan Sheikhoun, the largest city in the southern countryside of Idlib after being subjected to heavy aerial bombardment since the beginning of the escalation, did not exclude residential neighborhoods or service facilities, and caused the gradual displacement of the majority of its population.

Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP that regime forces “are now four kilometers (four kilometers) from Khan Sheikhoun in the west.

In the area east of Khan Sheikhoun, there are fierce battles between the regime forces on the one hand and HTS and the opposition factions on the other hand, while regime forces are trying to control a strategic hill located about six kilometers from the city.

Abdel Rahman said that the city “practically became between the jaws of pliers on both sides of the East and West.”

On Wednesday, regime forces seized five villages west of Khan Sheikhoun, close to the town of Hubeit, which they seized on Sunday after fierce battles against HTS (formerly al-Nusra) and Islamist and opposition factions.

The official Syrian news agency “SANA” that the control of these villages was “after the elimination of the last terrorist group organized Jabhat al-Nusra and the groups that belong to them.”

The fighting coincides with heavy shelling and Syrian and Russian raids on the southern countryside of Idlib, where a civilian was killed in the village of Maaret Horma as a result of a Russian raid.

The raids and fighting have caused massive displacement from areas still home to civilians. Dozens of cars and buses carrying residents and their belongings from the southern region are heading towards the north, which is not covered by the escalation, AFP correspondents said.

Near the city of Sarmada in the north, Abu Ahmed, 55, who fled with his family from the city of Maarat al-Nu’man, told AFP:

“We want to survive with our souls. We left the sheep, we left our homes and we fled,” he said.

– “We left our land” –

“We left our house, our property and our land full of crops of watermelon, grapes and figs,” said his wife, Um Ahmed, who sat next to him in his pick-up car with two young children and her child standing next to her.

Since the beginning of the regime’s escalation on Idlib and its environs, whole areas, especially in the southern countryside of Idlib and the northern Hama, have been virtually empty. The United Nations counted the displacement of more than 400,000 people to escape shelling and fighting.

The fighting took place Samtamra between the two parties Wednesday, according to the observatory 27 fighters from the jihadist and fighter factions in exchange for 14 regime forces and militants loyal to it.

HTS controls most of Idlib province and parts of neighboring provinces. There are also less influential Islamist and opposition factions.

The Idlib area and its environs have been covered by a Russian-Turkish agreement since September 2018, providing for the establishment of a demilitarized zone separating areas controlled by regime forces and factions. It also requires the withdrawal of the opposition factions of heavy and medium weapons and the withdrawal of jihadist groups from the region concerned. However, its implementation has not been completed.

The agreement was relatively calm, before Damascus began escalating since the end of April and Russia later joined it, killing 820 civilians, according to the Observatory, and pushing more than 400,000 people into displacement, according to the United Nations.

Earlier this month, Damascus agreed to a four-day ceasefire before it decided to resume military operations, accusing the factions of breaching the agreement and targeting Russia’s Hmimim airbase for its troops in the coastal province of Latakia.

– “Compression Tool” –

Since a week, regime forces have intensified their operations in the southern Idlib countryside, in an attempt to advance to Khan Sheikhoun and besiege the remaining faction-held towns in the northern countryside of Hama.

In addition to being the largest city in the southern countryside of Idlib, Khan Sheikhoun and neighboring towns in Idlib pass part of a strategic highway, which analysts say Damascus wants to continue to control.

The road is a vital artery linking the most prominent cities under the control of the regime forces from Aleppo north through Hama and Homs in the middle and then Damascus to the border crossing with Jordan.

Noir Oliver, a researcher at the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Studies, told AFP that regime forces and Russia “will not hesitate to control everything they will be able to bite off” in Idlib.

“The regime’s forces are seeking, with great Russian support, not only to open the international road, but to impose a new reality on the region, factions and their ally Turkey, and use it as a tool or weapon in any current or future negotiation process.”

During the years of the conflict, regime forces with Russian support have long pursued a strategy of gradually grabbing faction strongholds in preparation for control.

Syria has been plagued by a bloody conflict since its outbreak in 2011 that has killed more than 370,000 people and caused massive destruction of infrastructure, displacing more than half the population inside and outside the country.

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