Smoke billows during pro-regime bombardments in the area of Maar Hitat in Syria's northern Idlib province, Aug. 20, 2019.
Smoke billows during pro-regime bombardments in the area of Maar Hitat in Syria's northern Idlib province, Aug. 20, 2019.

The largest militant group in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib has withdrawn from a key town as Syrian regime troops advanced in the southern part of Idlib, local sources said.

The pullout came after days of intense bombardment by Syrian and Russian warplanes targeting rebel positions inside the town of Khan Sheikhoun and nearby villages, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported.

"The Syrian regime and its allies now are poised to take complete control of the town," Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory, told VOA.

He added that Syrian warplanes targeted about a dozen villages in the vicinity to push back opposition fighters from the town in southern Idlib.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaida's Syria affiliate, said in a statement on Tuesday that its fighters have "redeployed" in parts of Khan Sheikhoun "after extreme bombardment" by Syrian regime forces.

The militant group, labelled as a terrorist organization by the United States, added that despite its withdrawal, it would continue fighting Syrian troops in the area.

Khan Sheikhoun, which has been under militant control since 2014, is located on a major highway that links the Syrian capital, Damascus, to the country's largest city, Aleppo.

Expected move

While Syrian regime troops haven't fully entered the town yet, experts said the recent move by HTS and its allies was expected.

"It was inevitable for opposition forces to withdraw from parts of Idlib," said Ahmed Rahal, a former Syrian army colonel who is now a military analyst in Istanbul.

"Syrian regime troops are backed by airpower from Russia and there was an evenness in the fight on the ground. It was hard for rebel forces to continuously remain in one area," he told VOA.

Residents fleeing

To avoid a Syrian regime assault, Khan Sheikhoun residents have begun fleeing their homes in Idlb for nearby towns.

"At least 100 families, including mine, left their homes," a 32-year-old Khan Sheikhoun resident who left his home on Monday, told VOA. He declined to be identified for security reasons.

He added that volunteer groups have been helping civilians to evacuate the town before the regime takes full control.

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) search for victims amidst the rubble of a building that collapsed during reported airstrikes by pro-regime forces in the village of Beinin in the northern Idlib province, Aug. 20, 2019.

The ongoing violence has forced nearly half a million people to seek safety elsewhere in northern Syria.

The Syrian Observatory said that at least 3,000 people, including 900 civilians, have been killed across Idlib since the fighting has escalated in recent months.

Battle for Idlib

For months, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian warplanes, have been targeting towns and villages across the northwestern province. Idlib has been a major rebel stronghold since 2015.

In September 2018, Russia and Turkey, which back rival sides of Syria's conflict, reached a deal to create a buffer zone, but the agreement has not been fully implemented.

On Monday, Syrian fighter jets targeted a Turkish military convoy that had crossed into Idlib, killing several people.

The Syrian government said the convoy was carrying military equipment for rebel groups in Idlib.

But Turkey strongly condemned the action, saying the attack killed at least three civilians and wounded 12 others.

"Despite repeated warnings we made to the authorities of the Russian Federation, the military operations by the [Syrian] regime forces continue in Idlib region in violation of the existing memorandums and agreements with the Russian Federation," Turkey's foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday.