Bashar al-Assad has recaptured a significant town in Syria’s last rebel-held territory, in an offensive that has driven tens of thousands of people towards the border with Turkey.
Government soldiers entered Maarat al-Numan in northwest Idlib province on Tuesday under the cover of heavy airstrikes, a war monitor and government media said.
The town sits on the M5 highway, one of the country’s economic arteries, making it a strategic prize. Maarat al-Numan also has symbolic importance as one of the major centres for protest against Assad’s rule since the Syrian uprising began in 2011.
It has been bombed by Assad and his Russian allies for months, emptying the town of its 110,000 residents. In recent days Assad’s troops have surged forward, capturing more than a dozen villages in the area and encircling the town on three sides.
“Maarat al-Numan is completely destroyed and its population has been displaced and is living in uncertainty,” a rescue worker in the town said in a video posted to social media, which showed how barrel bombs, missiles and shelling destroyed scores of homes and buildings.
Further north, government forces began an offensive on the western suburbs of Aleppo in an attempt to push insurgents away from Syria’s largest city. Rebels have rained artillery and mortar shells down on Aleppo in recent days.
The UN and aid agencies have repeatedly warned that fighting in Idlib risks a major humanitarian catastrophe: its population has grown from one million people to approximately three million as Assad has clawed back territory from rebels over the nine-year conflict.
Turkey, which backs some of Idlib’s rebel groups, has attempted to broker several ceasefires. The most recent agreement with Moscow on 12 January failed to materialise: more than 120,000 people across Idlib have been displaced by the regime offensive since 15 January, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The number of people displaced in the past nine months is around 750,000. Hundreds of thousands are camped out on the Turkish border without adequate food, medicine or shelter in the winter conditions.
The push into Maarat al-Numan on Tuesday came hours before the UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, was scheduled to arrive inDamascus to meet officials.
Damascus and Moscow renewed efforts to recapture Idlib after Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaida offshoot, emerged as the dominant militant group in the area last year. Since then at least 68 medical facilities have been bombed, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, as well as schools and marketplaces.
While the regime has dropped leaflets on Idlib telling civilians to avoid shelling and airstrikes by moving southwards to reconcile with government forces, many are afraid that to do so risks arrest, imprisonment and torture in Assad’s jails.
Turkey, already home to around four million Syrians, is unwilling to open its border to more refugees.
On Tuesday, the Turkish defence ministry said in a statement it would retaliate “in self-defence” if any of its military posts in Idlib, installed to create a de-escalation zone, were threatened by the new push.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump discussed the situation in a phone call on Monday night and “agreed that the violence must stop,” the White House said.