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Syrian regime advances on Khan Sheikhoun in embattled Idlib

Forces loyal to the Syrian government have advanced within a few kilometers of the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib province, threatening to encircle a pocket of Islamist rebels.

The Syrian Arab Army recaptured several villages west of Khan Sheikhoun from jihadist groups and rebel fighters, Syrian state news agency SANA reported Wednesday, August 14.

Early on Wednesday Syria’s pro-opposition STEP News Agency reported on Twitter that pro-regime forces had captured the village of Tal Aas, less than 5 km (3.1 miles) west of Khan Sheikhoun.

To the city’s east, fighters from the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front claimed to have destroyed a pro-regime armored vehicle early on Wednesday southeast of the town of Tamaniya.

Idlib province in northwestern Syria is the last holdout of rebels who have been fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government for more than eight years of civil war.

The Syrian government offensive on Idlib, declared in late April, has progressed slowly but made a number of gains over the past week. A ceasefire reported by Syria’s state news agency earlier this month failed to hold.

Turkey maintains 12 observation posts in Idlib province, which is largely controlled by the NLF coalition of anti-Assad forces supported by the Turkish army, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of jihadist groups, some of which have links to al-Qaeda.

If Syrian pro-regime forces cut the M5 highway near Khan Sheikhoun, a Turkish outpost near the town of Murak could be encircled. A Turkish soldier was killed by regime artillery fire in Idlib in June.

Ankara severed diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2012 due to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war.

Russian and Syrian aircraft have repeatedly targeted civilian neighborhoods and hospitals during the offensive, which has sent hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing, according to the United Nations.

Russia and Turkey agreed in September 2018 to create a deescalation zone in Idlib, but the jihadist groups refused to withdraw from the area as part of the agreement.

The regime appears to be focusing its efforts on controlling the M5 highway, a strategic artery which links Aleppo to Damascus and continues southward to the Jordanian border.

Elements of the Syrian Arab Army’s 5th Corps, Liwa al-Quds (the Jerusalem Brigade) militia and Tiger Forces have reportedly participated in the operation.

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