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Syrian Troops Surround Rebel-held Town on 3 Sides

Syrians drive through the city of al-Mastouma, in Idlib province, as they flee a government offensive, Jan. 28, 2020.

Syrian government forces enveloped three sides of a key rebel-held town in the country's northwest, and were also advancing against insurgent positions west of the city of Aleppo, state media and opposition activists said Tuesday.

The fresh push came hours before the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, was scheduled to arrive in the capital Damascus to meet with officials.

Syrian government forces have been on the offensive for more than a month in the northwestern Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in the country. But in recent days, the government captured more than a dozen villages in the area as the insurgents' defenses began to crumble. Al-Qaida linked rebels control much of Idlib province and small parts of the adjacent area in Aleppo.

The main target of the government offensive under the cover of intense airstrikes was the strategic rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan, which sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo. Syrian troops were keeping a road leading west out of the town open, apparently to give insurgents a chance to withdraw.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said Syrian troops had tightened their grip on the town early Tuesday by capturing the nearby village of Kfar Roummah. The village lies to the southwest. Syrian state TV confirmed that government forces are now inside.

Further north, government forces began an offensive on the western suburbs of Aleppo in an attempt to push insurgents away from Syria's largest city. Rebels have rained artillery and mortar shells down on Aleppo in recent days.

The government offensive in Idlib province has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them to areas close to the border with Turkey. The province home to 3 million civilians, and the U.N. has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border.

The push in Maaret al-Numan and west of Aleppo brought government forces closer to retaking a critical north-south highway that passes through the town, held by rebels since 2012.

In August, Syrian troops captured another town that the highway passes through, Khan Sheikhoun. If Syrian troops capture Maaret al-Numan, their next target is likely to be Saraqeb, which would become the last major town on the M5 highway outside government control.