Syrian forces continue to advance towards the strategic city of Khan Sheikhoun (Observatory)

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (VOP TODAY NEWS) — Syrian regime forces on Thursday seized a series of villages under the control of jihadist factions in northwestern Syria as they continued their advance towards the strategic city of Khan Sheikhoun, the largest town in Idlib province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Regime forces, backed by Russian air support, have been intensifying combat operations in the southern countryside of Idlib, which is controlled by HTS (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra).

On Thursday, regime forces were located three kilometers from the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the northwest, after taking control of five small villages.

The city is on a major highway that the regime wants to control.

It connects the highway passing through Idlib, the capital Damascus, which is controlled by government forces and the northern city of Aleppo, which the regime regained from the rebels in December 2016.

The director of the observatory Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP that “the goal of progress is to besiege Khan Sheikhoun and access to the highway.” In practice, the city has become “between the jaws of pliers on both sides of the east and west,” Abdul Rahman said.

Fighting in southern Idlib on Thursday killed five government troops and 11 jihadists and insurgents, according to the British-based Observatory.

On Wednesday, jihadists shot down a Syrian warplane in the same area and captured its pilot.

On Thursday, HTS released a video showing the captive pilot who identified himself as Major General Mohammed Ahmed Suleiman of the Syrian Air Force.

HTS controls most of Idlib and parts of the neighboring governorates of Hama, Aleppo and Lattakia. 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.

Since the end of April, Syrian and Russian escalation in the region has killed 820 civilians, according to the Observatory. The Observatory said more than 1280 jihadists and 1,140 regime soldiers were killed in the same period.

The violence has displaced more than 400,000 people, according to the United Nations.

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.

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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