Syrian regime poised to seize key Idlib highway as Turkey threatens 'Plan B'

Syrian regime poised to seize key Idlib highway as Turkey threatens 'Plan B'
Almost 600,000 civilians have been displaced in Idlib since December and more than 300 have been killed.
4 min read
09 February, 2020
Syrian regime troops clashed with Turkish soldiers earlier this week [Getty]
Turkey renewed its threat to hit back at the Syrian regime forces on Sunday, as forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad were poised to retake a key highway linking the capital Damascus to the second city of Aleppo.

Assad and his Russian backer have long sought to regain the M5 motorway as the country's economy continues to fester after almost nine years of war.

Despite clashes with Turkish troops earlier this week and threats by Ankara of a fully fledged military offensive, the regime's military on Sunday vowed to keep up its nearly year-long campaign to seize the country's last opposition bastion.

With the crucial and devestating aid of Russian air power, Damascus accelerated its campaign to capture the northwestern province of Idlib in mid-December and has seen success in recent weeks, capturing large chunks of territory largely destroyed and vacated by civilians.

Forces loyal to Assad first launched the offensive on Idlib and remaining rebel redoubts in the northwest in April last year.

The province's 3.5 million-strong civilian population has borne the brunt of the brutal campaign, pushing hundreds of thousands of people - many of them already displaced from elsewhere in the country - from their homes.

While total numbers since the beginning of the offensive are unclear, almost 600,000 have fled the fighting since December according to the United Nations.
Civilians flee north towards the Turkish border [Anadolu]

Most of them are living in open-air shelters and temporary homes in freezing winter conditions.

Military spokesman General Ali Mayhoub said that regime forces had gained a strategic advantage in recent days with the capture of the key town of Saraqib, according to a statement carried by Syria's state news agency. 

Regime forces had seized a geographical area of more than 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) and captured dozens of towns and villages, he added.

Damascus' campaign currently appears to be focused on securing the M5 highway for now, rather than seizing the entire province and its the densely populated capital, Idlib.

Forces loyal to Assad were just a few kilometres from seizing full control of the strategic motorway, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday.

Only a two-kilometre section remains outside of regime control, it added.

Read more: In Idlib, Assad's war machine has a lethal message: 'Leave or die'

"Regime forces have gained new ground and now control several villages near the motorway," Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP

The continuing regime advance comes despite continued threats by Turkey over the violation of a ceasefire brokered by rebel-backer Ankara and Moscow.

"If the agreement keeps being violated, we have Plan B and Plan C," Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said in an interview with the Hurriyet daily published on Sunday.

"We on every occasion say 'do not force us, otherwise our Plan B and Plan C are ready'."

He did not give explicit details, but referred to Ankara's military campaigns in Syria since 2016.

As part of a 2018 deal with Russia, Turkey set up 12 observation posts in Idlib and Turkish security sources said this week three of them have now been encircled by forces loyal to Assad.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given Damascus until the end of the month to pull back from the outposts and urged Russia to convince the regime to halt its offensive.

Eight Turks were killed on Monday by regime shelling prompting a response by the Turkish army. 

Since Friday, Turkey has shipped large convoys of vehicles carrying commanos, tanks and howitzers to shore up its military posts in Idlib. 

"Our observation posts there will remain in place within the agreement," Akar said.

"If there is any obstacle, we put it clearly that we will do what's necessary."

Agencies contributed to this report

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