The main insurgent group in the Syrian province of Idlib pulled out of a critical rebel town as government forces advanced in the area on Tuesday amid intense bombardment and air strikes, a militant group and opposition activists said.
According to a statement from Syria’s main Al Qaeda-linked faction, the group made “a redeployment”, with its fighters withdrawing to areas south of the town of Khan Sheikhoun. From there, they would continue to defend the territory, it said.
The withdrawal is a significant loss for the opposition in its last major stronghold of Idlib, in northwestern Syria.
Syrian government forces have been on the offensive in Idlib and northern parts of Hama province since April 30, forcing almost half a million people to flee to safer areas further north. The fighting also killed more than 2,000 people, including hundreds of civilians.
Backed by Russian air power, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s forces were able to enter parts of the town overnight, opposition activists said. Syrian troops are now clearing the area abandoned by militants of explosives and booby-traps, activists said.
“After fierce bombardment by the criminal enemy that avoids direct confrontation with holy warriors by implementing a scorched earth policy, our fighters have redeployed south of Khan Sheikhoun,” the statement said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said the Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and other insurgent groups withdrew from Khan Sheikhoun as well as all the towns and villages south of the town.
Khan Sheikhoun was once home to about 34,000 people, but most of them were displaced by fighting in other parts of the country, before the government offensive began in April. In recent days hundreds of civilians remained in the town, said the group tracking Syria’s nine-year war.
The town is on the strategic M5 highway linking Aleppo in the north with Hama and the capital Damascus further south. A never-implemented ceasefire deal sponsored by Russia and Turkey was supposed to open the highway by the end of 2018.
Khan Sheikhoun was a stronghold of the Al Qaeda-linked militant faction, the most powerful group in rebel-held areas in Syria. The town was also the scene of a chemical attack on April 4, 2017 that killed 89 people.
The area south of the town to which rebel forces reported withdrawing is almost surrounded by pro-government forces.
A Turkish observation point is situated south of Khan Sheikhoun in the town of Morek. Turkey has installed lightly defended posts like these across Idlib, in the hopes of deterring an all-out assault on Idlib, home to rebel factions supported by Ankara.
But on Wednesday, Syria and its Russian allies bombed a Turkish military convoy travelling towards Khan Sheikhoun, killing three.
A Syrian ministry source told state news agency Sana that the convoy was carrying munitions for rebels, calling it an aggressive move that would not affect “the determination of the Syrian Arab Army to keep hunting the remnants of terrorists.”
There was no word on whether Turkish forces continued to man the observation point in Morek after rebels withdrew from Khan Sheikhoun.