Syrian regime forces took full control of the key northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on Wednesday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activists reported.
“Regime forces took full control of the town of Khan Sheikhun and are currently clearing it of mines,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
Pro-government fighters have now “surrounded an area stretching from the south of Khan Sheikhun into northern Hama province, cutting off all roads out” for Turkish troops in the nearby town of Morek, he said.
The Observatory said 21 anti-government fighters including 18 jihadists were killed in Wednesday’s clashes, along with 10 government or loyalist fighters.
The advance came after days of heavy fighting against rebels and jihadists who control the Idlib region, which sits on the Turkish border and is the last major stronghold of opposition to the Assad regime.
For the Syrian government, Khan Sheikhun is of strategic significance. It sits on the M5 highway, which links the large northern city of Aleppo to the capital of Damascus, and has been used as a major rebel supply route.
Earlier in the week, airstrikes (reportedly carried out by Russian and Syrian aircraft) targeted a Turkish military convoy near the city of Maarat al-Numan. Syria’s state news agency SANA quoted a foreign ministry source who said the convoy was supplying weapons to “terrorist groups” in Khan Sheikhun.
The Turkish defense ministry said the convoy was headed to resupply a military observation post, one of 12 Turkey installed around Idlib as part of a de-escalation agreement reached with Russia last September.
According to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC), the Turkish military convoy was composed of dozens of armored vehicles and tank transporters, accompanied by fighters from a rebel organization supported by Turkey.
ITIC assesses that “the objective was to take control of the M5 highway north of Khan Sheikhun to support the rebel organizations defending the city and halt the advance of the Syrian army northward towards Aleppo.”
It was the first move of its kind made by the Turkish regime since the beginning of the Syrian ground offensive, ITIC said. According to the research center, “its objective was to support the rebels, both the organizations operating under the aegis of Turkey and the jihadist Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham, which plays the main role in the fighting against the Syrian army. Sending the convoy created significant military friction between Turkey (which supports the rebel organizations) and Russia (which supports the Syrian regime).”
“However,” the researchers conclude, “apparently both countries have an interest in containing the event and will try, despite the difficulty involved, to return to conducting dialogues (given the Syrian army victories, which gave Russia the upper hand in dealing with Turkey).”
[Sources: ITIC, The Defense Post, France24]