Syria regime forces gain ground in Idlib: monitor
Syrian regime forces inched closer Friday to capturing a key jihadist-held city in northwest Syria following pitched battles with jihadists and rebels that killed 23 fighters, a war monitor said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Damascus loyalists seized the villages of Deir Sharqi and Deir Gharbi in southern Idlib province, and were four kilometres from Maaret al-Numan.
The jihadist-held city is one of the largest urban centres in Syria's last major opposition bastion and a key target of the regime, the monitor said.
"Deir Sharqi and Deir Gharbi are the keys to capturing Maaret al-Numan," the Observatory said..
Battles that led to the capture of the two villages, located south of Maaret al-Numan, killed seven pro-regime forces and 16 fighters from rebel and jihadist groups, the monitor said.
Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman said that regime forces could now use high hilltops in the two villages as launching pads for mortar attacks on Maaret al-Numan.
Regime forces, backed by Russian warplanes, have increased their attacks on southern Idlib since December, displacing more than 358,000 people, according to the United Nations.
The escalation coincides with a recent spike in regime attacks on the rebel-held west of Aleppo province, which neighbours Idlib.
Between 15 and 19 January, more than 38,000 people fled violence in western Aleppo, according to the United Nations.
Idlib and parts of Aleppo are dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The Idlib region is home to some three million people, nearly half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
A ceasefire announced by regime ally Moscow earlier this month was supposed to protect Idlib from further attacks, but the truce never took hold.
Aid agencies and relief groups have warned that further violence could fuel what may potentially become the largest wave of displacement seen during Syria's civil war.
Syrian government forces control around 70 percent of the country after nearly nine years of war and President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly vowed to retake Idlib from his rivals.