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Pro-Syrian Government Forces Aim to Seize Last Opposition-controlled Stronghold City

FILE - A general view shows damage at a site hit by airstrikes on Tuesday in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, April 5, 2017.

The Syrian army and Iranian-backed forces including Afghan fighters backed by Russian air power launched a new offensive against Syrian regime opposition's strongholds in Idlib province.

Idlib province in northwestern Syria is considered to be the last major stronghold controlled by opposition groups after they lost Aleppo to the Syrian regime last December. With intense Russian airstrikes and Iranian support on the ground, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces recaptured most of rebel-held peripheral sections of Aleppo.

The deal to end the battle of Aleppo reportedly involved relocating the majority of opposition fighters and their families to neighboring Idlib.

Idlib province was under the full control of opposition since 2015 when the rebels seized the capital city of the province, also called Idlib.

The army said the villages of Um Turayka, Bilil, and Rujum al Ahmar were seized in northeast Hama province, forcing the rebels to flee to areas close to the administrative boundaries of Idlib province.

Opposition groups blame heavy airstrikes as the major reason for their retreat. The Facebook page close to anti-Assad Free Syrian Army said several sorties of air missiles and bombardments by Russian jets in the last 48 hours have crippled the entire region, killed and injured innocent residents, and hit opposition-held villages and towns in the northeastern Hama countryside and the southern part of Idlib province.

Idlib and Homs provinces, Syria
Idlib and Homs provinces, Syria

Ali Aljaber, a Syrian activist and journalist currently living in Aleppo's northern countryside, told VOA that Russian jets continue to attack opposition targets in Idlib, but the ground campaign by the Syrian regime and allied militias slowed down today.

"There were clashes in Abu Dali area between Iranian-backed Syrian regime and opposition factions. ISIS is also trying to advance in Idlib," Ali said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based information source on Syria, said on its website that in addition to Syrian regime and allied militias trying to advance toward Idlib, IS — which controls a pocket in the northeastern part of rural Hama — is also trying to expand.

The armed opposition group of Hayat Tahrir al Sham — which is spearheaded by the former al-Qaida branch in Syria — and some Free Syrian Army rebel factions jointly control these areas, and are said to be sending reinforcements to take back a string of villages in the northeastern Hama countryside. Field reports, however, show no signs of recovery.

"The regime movements seek to besiege Idlib province with the help of Shia militias fighting with them," said opposition commander Mustafa Bakour with the military opposition faction of Jaish al Izza.

Sources close to the Syrian regime have reported that some militia fighting with the army have staged operations from the southeastern areas of the province.

Mashregh website, an Iranian Conservative media outlet, released a map showing that the resistance axis — a term pro-regime outlets use to address Assad supporters — have freed villages of Um Turayka, Bilil, and Rujum al Ahmar, stating that the liberation of these strategic villages forced the rebels to flee to areas close to the administrative boundaries of Idlib province.

The Syrian regime's first goal in launching the offensive is to retake strategic Abu Alzhour military airport.

Abu Alzhour airport is one of the most advanced military airports in the north with the longest tarmac, capable of providing landing and takeoff for heavy military aircraft and bombers. Opposition groups posted photos of the airport on their Telegram pages, showing that it was heavily bombed Sunday.