Syrian regime recaptures symbolic 'bastion of protest' Kafranbel amid deadly Idlib offensive
Supported by Russian air strikes, pro-regime forces advancing on the last major rebel-held bastion in northwest Syria captured Kafranbel and 18 nearby towns and villages over the past 48 hours, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Earlier on Thursday, the Observatory said regime air strikes and artillery fire had killed 19 civilians in Idlib, in towns north of Kafranbel.
From the first days of the peaceful uprising against the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011, Kafranbel gained worldwide renown as a bastion of protest.
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In 2012, it was rocked by fighting between regime fighters and defectors from Assad's army, soon slipping out of the government's control.
A town of some 20,000 people, it became known for the often humorous signs in English and Arabic that its residents held up at weekly demonstrations.
"Down with the regime - and the opposition," a sign at one of the town's protests read in 2011.
Activists from Kafranbel became famous for speaking out against Damascus as well as criticising jihadists and the radicalisation of the uprising against Assad.
Prominent activists Raed Fares and Hamod Jnaid were killed by unknown gunmen in the town in November 2018.
In recent weeks, Damascus has pressed a major offensive against the remaining territory still held by jihadists and Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib, which has shrunk to an area roughly the size of Majorca.
Moscow's air power has proven indispensable to the Syrian regime - a staunch ally of Damascus.
Having taken back control of the M5, another important highway which connects the capital with Aleppo, the allies are now turning their sights to the M4, which requires operations against towns and villages lying alongside it, according to Al-Jazeera.
Analysts expect a tough battle for the town of Jisr al-Shighour, held by the Turkistan Islamic Party, whose fighters mainly hail from China's Uighur Muslim minority.
They are allied to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group which dominates the opposition in the Idlib region.
Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced when the regime launched its military offensive in April 2019 to capture rebel-held areas western Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
Several fragile ceasefires failed to hold in the summer and Damascus relaunched its offensive in December.
On Monday, the United Nations said he latest fighting was coming "dangerously close" to the displaced people's encampments, risking an imminent "bloodbath".
Mark Cutts, a UN humanitarian coordinator, told reporters in Geneva that the intergovernmental organisation was trying to double aid deliveries across a border crossing with Turkey, from 50 to 100 trucks a day.
Turkey has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees and said it is unwilling to open its borders to a new influx from Syria's northwest.
Fearing a fresh refugee crisis, Turkey has poured thousands of troops into Idlib in the last few weeks and President Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to use military force to drive back Syrian forces unless they pull back by the end of the month.
As many as 16 Turkish military personnel have been killed by Syrian forces and several Turkish military observation posts - which were considered safe following an agreement between Moscow and Ankara - ended up being surrounded in areas retaken by regime forces.
This has raised tensions between Turkey and Russia, which, although backing opposing sides in Syria's conflict, had held talks on ceasefires.
Read more: Erdogan says no agreement yet on four-way Syria summit to end Idlib onslaught
Eearlier this week, Erdogan announced a four-party summit with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany to stem the ongoing violence, on Tuesday he said that there had been "no agreement" on talks.
The Turkish leader said he might instead hold face-to-face talks with Putin on 5 March, either in Istanbul or in Ankara.
The area hosts more than three million people - half of them already displaced by violence elsewhere.
The offensive has killed more than 400 civilians, according to the Observatory, and displaced close to a million people amid bitter cold.
Syria's war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.