NEAR SARMADA, Syria – Regime fighters pushed further into a jihadist-run bastion in northwest Syria Wednesday, August 14, inching towards a key town following months of deadly bombardment, a monitor said.
After 8 years of civil war the Idlib region, controlled by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, is the last major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Air strikes and rocket fire by the regime and its ally Russia have pounded Idlib for more than 3 months, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands.
In the south of the stronghold, almost all residents of Khan Sheikhun – which lies on a key highway coveted by the regime – have left the town.
The road in question runs through Idlib, connecting government-held Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, which was retaken by loyalists from rebels in December 2016.
After a week of ground advances, Assad's fighters were just a few kilometers away from the town on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"Regime forces are now 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Khan Sheikhun to the west, with nothing between them and it but fields," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
To the east, pro-Assad fighters are battling to control a hill just 6 kilometers (less than 4 miles) from the town, the head of the Britain-based Observatory said.
Air strikes pounded the area, with a Russian warplane killing a civilian in the area of Maaret Hurma in Idlib province, said the Observatory, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.
Clashes on Wednesday killed 14 members of the regime forces, as well as 20 jihadists and 7 allied rebels, it said.
State news agency SANA on Wednesday said army troops had taken several villages from the jihadists and rebels in the area west of Khan Sheikhun.
Agence France-Presse correspondents have reported seeing dozens of families flee fighting over the past few days, heading north in trucks stacked high with belongings.
On the highway not far from the Turkish border on Wednesday, a family was driving north in their pick-up truck.
"We want to save ourselves," said Abu Ahmad, 55, behind the wheel on the road near the town of Sarmada.
"We left our sheep, we left our homes, and we fled," he said, dressed in a long white robe.
Sitting beside him, his wife Umm Ahmad said they had left almost everything behind.
"Our land is spilling with grapes and figs," she said of the family farm near the town of Maaret al-Noman.
A buffer zone deal brokered by Russia and Turkey last year was supposed to protect the Idlib region's 3 million inhabitants from an all-out regime offensive, but it was never fully implemented.
Up the pressure
An alliance led by fighters from former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham took full control of the anti-Assad stronghold in May.
Regime and Russian air strikes and shelling since late April have killed 820 civilians, according to the Observatory.
The United Nations says dozens of health centers as well as schools have been targeted.
Humanitarian workers have warned that any fully-blown ground attack on Idlib would cause one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria's war.
The conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad since starting with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.
Government forces have taken back large parts of the country from rebels and jihadists with Russian military backing since 2015.
But Idlib, nearby areas controlled by Turkey-backed rebels, and a large swathe of the northeast held by Kurds remain beyond its reach.
Analyst Nawar Oliver said that, with the ongoing air strikes and ground advances, government forces aimed not only to retake the road running through Idlib, but also pile pressure on HTS and allied rebels.
Regime forces "won't hesitate to bite off or control everything they can," said Oliver, an expert at the Turkey-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies.
They want to "impose a new reality on the region, the rebels, and their Turkish ally, and to use it as a tool or weapon in any current or future negotiations," he said. – Rappler.com