Syrian regime captures key town in rebel-held Idlib province

Syrian regime forces have made their most significant advance since launching an attack on the last province controlled by the opposition, capturing a strategically important town, Reuters reported on Sunday.

Over 100 fighters died in fierce fighting on Saturday, as the Syrian army and its allies bombarded rebel positions with around 2,000 air and artillery strikes, Reuters said, citing the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime captured the town of al-Hobeit, a key point on the network of roads leading to southern Idlib, the main Damascus-Aleppo highway, and the city of Khan Sheikhoun, Reuters said.

The Syrian regime’s advance has been complicated by the presence of Turkish observation posts near the rebels’ front lines, the news agency said.

Turkey, which backs some of the rebel groups in Idlib, struck a deal with Assad’s Russian allies last September to prevent a regime attack on the province by creating a de-escalation zone to be cleansed of “extremist” rebel groups and heavy weaponry.

This year the Syrian army renewed its onslaught with Russian backing after the Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group gained dominance in Idlib and launched attacks on neighbouring areas. The jihadist group is one of those that Moscow had demanded Turkey clear from the de-escalation zone.

The regime’s attacks, backed by heavy bombing by the Russian air force, have raised concerns of a new humanitarian crisis. Idlib is home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees displaced from other areas in the country, many of whom have taken shelter at the border with Turkey.