This picture taken on December 24, 2019 shows a view of a deserted square in Maaret Al-Numan in the northwestern Idlib province…
A deserted square is pictured in Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province, Syria, as government forces advance on the town, Dec. 24, 2019.

Syrian government troops, supported by Russian warplanes, have advanced on a rebel-held town in the northwestern province of Idlib, local sources said Wednesday. 

The offensive against the town of Maaret al-Numan in the southern part of Idlib has caused a major influx of civilians to safer areas along the Syrian-Turkish border, a war monitoring group reported. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has researchers across the war-torn country, said that following intense fighting in the area, Syrian government forces took control of dozens of villages around the strategic town, killing dozens of people and forcing thousands of local residents to flee from their homes. 

"The town will most likely be handed over to Turkish military and Russian military police in the next few days, if not hours," Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory, told VOA, adding that rebels could not carry on the fight. 

There is an agreement between Turkey and Russia to remove all Islamist rebels from Maaret al-Numan and nearby towns in Idlib, he said.  

Center of contention

For years, Idlib has been a center of contention between Russia and Turkey, two powers that support opposite sides of Syria's eight-year civil war. 

In September 2018, Moscow and Ankara reached an agreement that postponed a planned Syrian government offensive on Idlib and other areas near the Turkish border. 

As part of that agreement, Turkey was required to remove all extremist groups from the province, some of which are tied to the al-Qaida terrorist group. But Turkey allegedly has failed to implement its part of the deal. 

Turkey also has 12 military observation posts in the area as part of a de-escalation agreement between Turkey and Russia. 

On Tuesday, a Turkish military post reportedly was besieged by advancing Syrian troops. 

A Syrian opposition news channel, Orient News, reported that Islamist militants have been fighting government troops on several fronts, killing at least 10 soldiers on Wednesday. 

Key highway

Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been pushing toward the town of Maaret al-Numan, which is located on a highway connecting the capital, Damascus, in the south, to the city of Aleppo in the north. The objective of Assad's forces is to take full control of the strategic M5 highway. 

Idlib province, home to nearly 3 million people, is the last major stronghold of rebel forces fighting Syrian troops. The province is largely controlled by the Islamist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. 

Syrian forces and their Russian allies launched a major offensive last week into the southern part of Idlib. The offensive came after weeks of aerial bombardment that displaced tens of thousands of people. 

The military escalation has caused dozens of civilian casualties and displaced 80,000 Syrians, the U.N. said this week. 

But local groups, including the Syrian Observatory, estimated that more than 100,000 civilians in Idlib already had been displaced.