Syrian government forces recently took more new areas from the insurgents to gain control over a key highway in the northwestern region of the country. This government-led offensive began in December and created a humanitarian crisis, causing around 600,000 people to flee their homes. According to the United Nations, this government offensive was launched in an effort to gain control over one of the last rebel strongholds in the country. The Idlib province is controlled by the rebels, along with parts of the Aleppo region, home to around three million people, many of whom were displaced from other parts of Syria.
“Our aim is to clear the highway and evict terrorists from it,” said a Syrian commander on the ground. The M5 highway he was referring to links the Syrian capital, Damascus, to Aleppo in the North. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said that the government’s forces still have about 18 miles of the highway to obtain before it will be completely under government control for the first time since 2012. Syrian state television reported that the government forces had captured four villages in the Aleppo province near the M5 highway. In addition, the government has cleared many explosives and hidden mines from the town of Saraqeb, which had been recently captured by Syrian troops. Saraqeb sits on the intersection of the M5 and the M4, linking Syria’s coast to the eastern part of the country.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and an Idlib-based media activist Taher al-Omar, a new push came when Turkey, a crucial backer of the opposition, sent reinforcements into Idlib. The Observatory also stated that a convoy of 430 vehicles have entered Syria since last Friday; the total number of vehicles that entered Syria since last weekend far surpasses one thousand. Adding to the violence, a rare clash occurred on February 3rd between Turkish troops and Syrian soldiers; this incident left seven Turkish soldiers and one Turkish civilian dead as well as killing 13 Syrian troops.
The current unrest in Syria is part of the Syrian Civil War that started back in 2011. During that year, the Arab Spring began after a successful coup in Tunisia sparked protests across the Middle East and parts of Africa. In Syria, it began as protests about Syrian citizens’ discontent with their government; eventually, it grew into a continuing armed conflict that has now lasted for nine years. The Syrian government has been trying to combat the rebel and terrorist groups that have taken control of large parts of Syria and displacement millions of people since the war began. The particular offensive is aimed at securing the strategic M5 highway in rebel-controlled territory. This is not yet a campaign to retake the entire province which included the densely populated provincial capital of Idlib. The M5 highway is economically significant for Syria as well; before the war began, this highway was used to transport commerce between Turkey, Syria, and the Gulf countries. The highway also connects the northern and southern parts of Syria, making it an important holding for both sides of the conflict.
Gaining control of the M5 highway is extremely important for the Syrian government in their goal of taking back control of rebel-occupied territory; this is one of the last places in Syria where the rebels have complete control. The contention over this strip of highway is also causing international tensions. Last Friday, after the clash between Turkish and Syrian troops, Turkey’s Defense Ministry warned that the Turkish army would respond “even more forcefully” to any attacks on Turkish posts in the area. He added, “Our observation posts will continue carrying out duties. Recent violence has also continued to raise tensions between Russia and Turkey who are backing opposite sides of the conflict. Currently, Russia and Turkey are engaging in cease-fire and political talks, even as the violence continues and tensions are far from quelled.
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