Syrian regime forces were poised on Friday to retake the opposition-held town of Saraqeb in the country’s northwest where battles this week killed more than 400 combatants, a monitor said.
Russian-backed regime forces have pressed with a double-pronged push in the Idlib region, home to some three million people, half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
Slowly chipping away from the south and northeast, they have shrunk Syria’s last major opposition bastion to just over half of Idlib province and slivers of neighboring Aleppo and Latakia.
On Friday, regime forces battled extremists and militant opposition factions on the edges of Saraqeb, which has been nearly deserted following two weeks of heightened bombardment, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The clashes were within 2 kilometers (1 mile) of the town which lies on the coveted M5 highway that connects the Syrian capital Damascus to second city Aleppo, said the Britain-based Observatory.
Saraqeb also sits at the junction of the M4, which runs west-to-east across Idlib, linking the coastal regime stronghold of Latakia to Aleppo, once Syria’s industrial hub.
Both highways are coveted by the regime as it seeks to revive a moribund economy after nine years of war.
Second strategic town
If Saraqeb falls in the hands of the government, it would be the second strategic town in Idlib province to be recaptured by government troops this week.
On Wednesday, militants and extremists pulled out of Maarat al-Numan, which also lies on the M5.
Some 50 kilometers of the M5 remain outside regime control, mostly in the western countryside of Aleppo province, which neighbors Idlib, according to the Observatory.
Militants and extremists have been locked in fierce battles with regime forces in western Aleppo since mid-January, in the largest escalation there since 2016.
The fighting in Idlib and in western Aleppo over the past week has killed 205 pro-government fighters and 220 anti-regime combatants, the Observatory said.
A Syrian military commander who asked not to be named said that the push in the two provinces aims to secure key highways and corner rebels and extremists in a shrinking pocket in central Idlib.
Regime forces near Sarqeb are pushing north, while those in Aleppo are moving towards them from the south, he told AFP during a government-organized tour of Maarat al-Numan on Thursday.
The Idlib region is dominated by extremists of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, led by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Damascus which controls more than 70 per cent of Syria has repeatedly vowed to reclaim the entire country, including Idlib.
The violence in the northwest has displaced more than 388,000 people, according to the United Nations, and killed more than 260 civilians, according to Observatory.