What happened: Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime have taken key territory in the province of Aleppo as they advance on the rebel-held province of Idlib. In a major strategic achievement for the regime, the M5 highway from Aleppo to Damascus has been reopened, following fierce fighting. Yesterday the Syrian Minister of Transport, Ali Hammoud, also announced the reopening of Aleppo International Airport.
- As part of the advance, Syrian forces took the towns of Anadan and Haritan, in what was described by the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as “a very rapid advance.” The regime’s advance was assisted by heavy Russian airstrikes over the weekend with reports of air strikes in Idlib province and Russian air strikes near the Turkish border north of Aleppo city, according to Reuters.
- Turkey and Russia held talks in Moscow yesterday. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said following the meeting that: “Troops from Russia and Turkey on the ground in Syria, in Idlib, are in constant contact with each other, looking at changes in the conditions. They have a full understanding of each other”, but said that Islamist attacks on Russian and Syrian positions could not be left unanswered.
Context: Turkish-Russian talks took place following threats by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to drive back Syrian forces if they did not withdraw from Idlib by the end of the month. But recent action suggests that the regime has no intention of slowing down its campaign to retake control of the final parcels of rebel-held territory in Idlib and western Aleppo.
- Aleppo city was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting before being retaken by the Syrian regime in 2016, although parts of Aleppo province have remained under rebel control. Idlib is still controlled by rebel forces, including jihadist groups, encircled by Turkish observation posts. Turkish and Turkish-backed forces are present north of Idlib, in the province of Afrin along the Turkey-Syrian border.
- The United Nations said yesterday that more than 875,000 Syrians have fled towns and villages in Idlib and Aleppo since 1 December.
Looking ahead: The reopening of Aleppo International Airport and the M5 highway, including to civilian traffic, are of more than symbolic importance; they represent important steps towards some kind of normality.
- Turkish-backed rebels have launched an operation in Idlib to retake areas lost to the Syrian government, backed by an 100-vehicle convoy of reinforcements including troops, tanks and military vehicles.
- President Assad himself warned on state television the war is not over: “We know this liberation does not mean the end of the war or the crushing of all plots or the end of terror or the surrender of the enemy, but it definitely rubs their noses in the dirt.”