Beirut, (AFP) – Regime forces massed Saturday in northwest Syria, a monitor said, in an apparent bid to press an offensive against jihadists and allied rebels that has heightened tensions with neighbouring Turkey.
After eight years of civil war, the jihadist-run region of Idlib on the Turkish border is one of the last to escape the Damascus government’s control.
Backed by Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have chipped away at the south of the stronghold in recent weeks after months of deadly bombardment.
On Wednesday, they seized the key town of Khan Sheikhun from jihadists and allied rebels, and on Friday overran the countryside to the south of the town, encircling a Turkish observation post there.
On Saturday, loyalist fighters gathered north of Khan Sheikhun, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The day after they controlled the area south of Khan Sheikhun, regime forces are massing in the area north of it,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring group, told AFP.
They are “preparing to continue their advance towards the area of Maaret al-Noman”, a town some 25 kilometres (15 miles) to the north, he said.
– Car bomb –
That area has come under intense Russian and regime aerial bombardment and been depleted of almost all of its residents in the past two weeks, the Observatory says.
On Saturday, heavy bombardment hit the region in an apparent preparation for a further push north, Abdel Rahman said.
An AFP correspondent saw thick grey smoke billow up into a clear blue sky after a strike on the outskirts of Maaret al-Noman.
After Khan Sheikhun, Maaret al-Noman is the next town on a key highway running across Idlib province that analysts say is coveted by the regime.
Full government control of that road would allow it to connect the capital Damascus with second city Aleppo, retaken from opposition fighters in late 2016.
Also Saturday, a car bomb in Idlib city killed two people, the Observatory said, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Turkish troops have been deployed at a dozen points around the Idlib region of some three million people, in an attempt to set up a buffer zone to protect the area.
A deal between Russia and rebel backer Turkey signed in September last year sought to set up the demilitarised area to avert an all-out regime assault, but jihadists refused to withdraw.
– Moscow meeting –
In January, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — an alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate — took full control of the region.
Russian and regime bombardment since late April has killed around 900 civilians, the Observatory says.
A further 400,000 have been forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
Assad advisor Buthaina Shaaban on Friday accused Turkey of “turning the observation points into spots for transporting weapons and occupying a part of our land”.
Also on Friday Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied the observation post in Morek had been surrounded and vowed that his country’s troops would not withdraw from the position.
On Monday, regime air planes targeted a rebel vehicle leading a Turkish military convoy down the main highway in the direction of Morek.
It remained there on Saturday, an AFP reporter said.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to visit Moscow on Tuesday for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
They and their Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani — a supporter of the Damascus regime — are also to convene in Ankara on September 16.
Syria’s war has killed more than 370,000 people since starting with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.