BEIRUT - Syrian government forces captured two northwestern villages in an intensified offensive on the last rebel-held part of the country, inching closer to the town of Kfar Zeita which has been held by insurgents since 2012, opposition activists and state media reported Wednesday.
Meanwhile, neighboring Turkey reiterated threats to attack northeastern Syria to push back U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces there even as Turkish and U.S. officials held in Ankara on establishing a so-called “safe zone'' within Syria.
The two developments the Syrian government offensive and Turkey's threats herald new escalations in Syria's civil war, now in its ninth year.
The Syrian forces first captured the village of Arbaeen overnight, then the nearby Zakat early in the morning as part of their offensive on Idlib province, the last remaining major rebel stronghold in Syria. The developments were reported by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group.
Earlier this week, the Syrian army announced it was resuming an offensive on the rebel-held northwest, accusing insurgents of violating the latest truce there. If the army keeps pushing into the northwest, Syrian forces could get in contact with Turkish troops that man 12 observation posts along the border of Idlib. The closest Turkish point is in Morek, about 12 kilometers (9 miles) east of Zakat.
Syrian troops have been attacking Idlib and a stretch of land around it controlled by insurgents since April 30. The three-month airstrikes and shelling has displaced some 400,000 and left more than 2,000 people dead on both sides.
Zakat and Arbaeen were controlled by Jaish al-Izza, one of the main rebel groups in northern parts of the central province of Hama.
The Observatory said ”regime forces are at the gates” of Kfar Zeita now, adding that fighting in the two villages killed 18 insurgents and 10 pro-government troops.
Kfar Zeita is one of the largest towns in the northern parts of Hama province and lies on the edge of Idlib, which is home to some 3 million people, many of them internally displaced by fighting elsewhere in Syria. Kfar Zeita and the nearby town of Latamneh appear to be main targets of the latest government offensive.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch reported in 2014 that it has strong evidence that Syrian army helicopters dropped bombs carrying chlorine gas on three rebel-held towns, including Kfar Zeita.
Also Wednesday, Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said his country would like to establish a so-called “safe zone” in northeast Syria jointly with the United States but will act alone if necessary. Akar spoke as Turkish and U.S. military officials continued to hold talks in Ankara over the zone.
He said the talks were progressing in a “positive” manner, adding that the American officials' views were “moving closer” to Turkey's.
Ankara wants to control in coordination with the U.S. a 19-25 mile-deep zone east of the Euphrates River in Syria, and wants no Syrian Kurdish forces there. Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists aligned with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Turkey has threatened to attack this part of Syria to push back the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces, known as Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
Also Wednesday, Syrian state news agency SANA reported that a car bomb exploded in the SDF-controlled northern village of Qahtaniyeh, killing several people and wounding others.