More than 60 German nationals are fighting for extremist groups in Syria’s Idlib, reports suggest, as a regime assault on the rebel-held province continues to rage.
The foreign fighters are mostly members of the Al Qaeda-linked group Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) and Junud Al Sham, German broadcaster SWR reported on Sunday.
The broadcaster said transcripts of communications on instant messaging apps showed that dozens of fighters were trying to secure financial aid from supporters in Germany, instructing backers to send donations to an individual in Turkey using bank transfers or cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
Idlib, in north-west Syria, is the last major opposition bastion in the country.
The province is home to some three million people, half of them already displaced by Syria’s devastating war.
Regime forces on Sunday vowed to keep up the campaign to regain control of the whole country, days after capturing swathes of territory in a Russia-backed assault.
Syrian military spokesman Gen Ali Mayhoub said government forces had gained a strategic advantage in recent days, according to a statement carried by Syria’s state news agency.
Gen Mayhoub said that Syrian troops advancing from around Aleppo’s southern countryside had linked up with those coming from eastern Idlib.
The Syrian army had seized a geographical area of more than 600 square kilometres and captured dozens of towns and villages, he added.
But the government offensive appears to be aimed at securing the strategic M5 motorway in rebel-controlled territory for now, rather than seizing the entire province and its densely populated capital, Idlib.
Heavy fighting in the province has created a flashpoint, with Turkey – a main backer of the Syrian opposition – moving significant military reinforcements including tanks and troops to rebel-held areas.
The military buildup and regime advance sparked a rare clash between Turkish and Syrian soldiers that left eight Turkish personnel and 13 Syrian soldiers dead on February 3.
The violence has killed more than 300 civilians and sent more than half a million people fleeing towards the relative safety of the Turkish border.
Around 50,000 fighters are thought to be in the rebel-controlled territory, many of them extremists but the majority allied rebels, according to the UK-based war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
On Sunday, Russian air strikes left 14 people dead, including nine in the village of Kar Nuran in southwestern Aleppo province, the monitor said.
Regime and Russian forces have intensified their attacks on Aleppo in recent days as government forces close in on a two-kilometre section of the M5 motorway that remains outside of their control.
The road connects Damascus to Aleppo, Syria’s second city, and is economically vital to the government after nine years of war.