Battle looms for rebel-held Syrian province
January 8, 2018 -- Syrian government forces and allied militiamen are advancing on the largest remaining rebel-held territory in the country’s north, forcing thousands of civilians to flee toward the border with Turkey in freezing winter temperatures.
The offensive on Idlib – a large province packed with civilians and dominated by Al-Qaeda-linked militants – was expected after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State group late last year. The province is home to more than 2.6 million Syrians, according to the UN, including more than 1.1 million who fled fighting elsewhere in the country. A full-blown government offensive could cause large-scale destruction and massive displacement.
Turkey, a supporter of the rebels, has deployed military observers in the province as part of a de-escalation deal with Iran and Russia, but that has not stopped the fighting on the ground or Russian airstrikes against the insurgents.
It is not clear how far the current offensive aims to reach, and recapturing the entire province is expected to be a long and bloody process. Opposition activists say the main target for now appears to be the sprawling rebel-held air base of Abu al-Duhur, on the southeastern edge of the province, and securing the Damascus-Aleppo road that cuts through Idlib.