Syria army eroding rebel territory on two fronts

Syrian government troops have retaken a string of small rebel-held pockets near the country’s capital and in the northwest over the past two weeks, a monitor said on Friday. After dealing a blow to the Islamic State group in Syria’s east, pro-regime forces have been redeployed to fight rebels and jihadists on two other fronts, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

One is in the southwestern part of Damascus province, where troops are aiming to “finish off” remaining opposition outposts, said the Britain-based monitor. Operations have focused on hilly terrain surrounding the village of Beit Jin, held by rebels for more than four years.

“This area is strategic because of its proximity to the Golan Heights and to the Lebanese border,” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman. “The regime wants to cleanse these areas of opposition groups, the strongest of which is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham,” Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate, he added.

Farther north, troops have received air cover from ally Russia as they pushed to reach Idlib province, which is held by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. It is included in a “de-escalation” deal aiming to freeze fighting between rebels and the government, but since November, fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have ramped up operations to reach Idlib from two sides, the Observatory said.

Troops are pushing north from a corner of the adjacent province of Hama, as well as from Aleppo province to Idlib’s east. They have seized around 40 towns and villages across the three provinces in recent weeks. “The regime is trying to reach Idlib’s eastern half because of the strategic positions there,” including a military airport and two rebel-besieged villages, said Abdel Rahman.

In particular, Assad loyalists want to “secure the route between Aleppo and Damascus”, which passes near Idlib. The steady advance comes as Syria’s government marks the first anniversary of its victory in second city Aleppo. The moment was the biggest defeat yet for Syria’s rebel movement and set off a domino effect of other losses.

Observers say the de-escalation deal, agreed in May, also helped regime forces to consolidate territorial gains. According to the Observatory, Syria’s government held just 20 percent of the country at the beginning of 2017, but it now controls about 56 percent.

The conflict erupted in 2011 with anti-government protests but evolved into a brutal war, with Damascus losing swathes of territory early on but regaining the upper hand in recent years.

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