CAIRO - Syrian government forces now control all of the strategic Damascus to Aleppo highway, which they had been trying to wrest from Turkish-backed rebels for weeks. As Syrian troops continue to push ahead inside the rebel-held enclave of Idlib, Turkey sent reinforcements to observations posts it occupies, while dispatching its foreign minister to Moscow.
Syrian state TV showed bulldozers and engineering crews clearing rubble from the final stretch of the Damascus to Aleppo highway, which government forces captured from Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib province during the past several days.
Chief Highway Engineer Mohammed Wazzan said the highway is the main lifeline between Damascus and Aleppo, and government crews were working to reopen the last stretch — which it just captured — despite the bad condition of the roadway.
He says that maintenance crews are working hard to reopen the highway, which has been out of service for five years, clearing earth and rubble from the surface, making sure land mines have been removed, and spreading asphalt in some places.
Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Arab media the Turkish army had brought in more armored vehicles and troops to the 12 checkpoints in Idlib province that it controls, following a Turkish-Russian accord agreed to last year in the resort of Sochi.
Turkish media reported that Ankara was sending its foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to Moscow to discuss the latest developments in Idlib. Cavusoglu, who was at the Munich Security Conference, told journalists that Ankara "wants to resolve its dispute with Russia [which supports Syrian government forces] diplomatically," but he added that Turkey "will take decisive steps" if that is not possible.
Arab media showed video of Syrian government troops entering the towns of Orm al-Kubra, Orm al-Sughra and Kufr Naha, which they captured from Turkish-backed rebels within the past 24 hours. Syrian state TV showed the bodies of rebels strewn outside the walls of Orm al-Kubra.
Meanwhile, the United Nations said Friday more than 140,000 civilians have been displaced from northwestern Syria in just the last three days.
An escalation in fighting across Idlib and Aleppo has pushed more than 830,000 people to flee their homes since early December, causing what the U.N. has said is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe since the conflict started in 2011. About 3 million people live in the province.
“Women and children are among those that are suffering the most — they make up about 81% of the recently displaced people,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters. “Temperatures across northwest Syria have been below freezing for several days, leaving families exposed to increasingly harsh conditions,” he added.
Many of the displaced are moving north toward already overcrowded camps near the Syria-Turkey border.
They are fleeing an escalation in fighting between the Syrian military, which is backed by Russia and Iran, and Syrian armed opposition groups, some of whom have Turkish support. The Syrian government is trying to crush the last major opposition strongholds.
The situation worsened further this month, when Syrian government forces killed 13 Turkish troops, provoking Ankara to strike back, in some of the worst confrontations between the neighbors since the conflict began nine years ago.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has gained what’s perhaps his most significant strategic victory in the nearly 9-year-old Syrian civil war: the recapture of the all-important M5 highway
The fighting, along a main highway, also has severely hindered food distribution.
The World Food Program (WFP) and its partners were forced to temporarily stop distribution earlier this week because the fighting had disrupted the movement of trucks carrying supplies into the area from Turkey.
“We are deeply concerned about the fate of thousands of families who had to leave their homes in freezing winter temperatures in search for safety in camps that are already overcrowded,” WFP Regional Director Muhannad Hadi said in a statement. “In Syria, civilians continue to pay the price for the ongoing conflict.”
In New York, the European Union members of the U.N. Security Council requested a closed-door meeting on the situation.
“We demand that the parties, especially the Syrian regime and its allies, immediately end their military offensive, establish a genuine and lasting cease-fire, guarantee the protection of civilians and fully adhere to international humanitarian law,” Estonia’s Ambassador Sven Jurgenson said on behalf of France, Germany, Poland and Belgium. “We call for a sustainable cease-fire and call upon the U.N. and the special envoy in particular to spare no efforts in this regard.”
U.N. Syria Envoy Geir Pedersen is in Germany this week for the Munich Security Conference. He is due to brief council members Wednesday
VOA's U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer and Edward Yeranian in Cairo contributed to this report.