Syrian regime on verge of recapturing Idlib highway town
The regime and its Russian ally first launched the offensive to retake northern Hama and Idlib in spring last year but a double-pronged push in recent weeks has seen the conflict escalate to devastating effect, forcing 300,000 civilians to flee and killing around 400 militants.
On Friday, regime forces battled extremist forces and rebels on the edges of Saraqeb, which has been nearly deserted following two weeks of heightened bombardment, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
The clashes were within two kilometres (1 mile) of the town which lies on the coveted M5 highway that connects the Syrian capital Damascus to second city Aleppo, said the UK-based SOHR.
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 crippled economy after nine years of war.
Read more: Syria Weekly: Hard economic times test the patience of Assad loyalists
If Saraqeb falls in the hands of Damascus, it would be the second strategic town in Idlib province to be recaptured by government troops this week.
On Wednesday opposition forces pulled out of Maarat al-Numan, which also lies on the M5. As one of the first towns in Idlib to rise up against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, Maarat al-Numan had been out of regime hands since 2012 until this week.
Some 50 kilometres of the M5 remain outside regime control, mostly in the western countryside of Aleppo province, which neighbours Idlib, according to the SOHR.
Rebels and extremist forces 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 SOHR said.
A Syrian regime commander who asked not to be named said that the push in the two provinces aims to secure key highways and corner opposition forces in a shrinking pocket in central Idlib.
Regime forces near Saraqeb are pushing north, while those in Aleppo are moving towards them from the south, he told AFP during a government-organised 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. It is home to more than three million civilians, around half of whom are refugees displaced from fierce fighting and aerial bombardment elsewhere in Syria.
Damascus which controls more than 70 percent of Syria has repeatedly vowed to reclaim the entire country, including Idlib.
Russian-led bombardment and the regime advance has displaced more than 300,000 over the past month and a half, according to the United Nations, and killed more than 260 civilians, according to the SOHR.