The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and other pro-government forces have entered Ma’arat al-Numan, an opposition-held town of critical importance, on January 28, 2020. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) report that the fighting moved inside the city, with social media evidence confirming the event. It is however, unclear whether the SAA has also managed to capture the city. The situation is likely very fluid with sporadic fights and pockets of resistance appearing in the city’s neighbourhoods.
Located in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, the town was the target of the SAA’s newest offensive launched on Friday. Since then, the pro-government camp captured 23 towns and surrounded Ma’arat al-Numan. With the city besieged, fighter-bombers operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) and helicopters used by the Syrain Arab Air Force (SyAAF) dropped scores of unguided ammunition such as thermobaric and barrel bombs on the area. Shiite militias backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) such as Liwa Fatemiyoun also participate in the offensive.
Khan aSubbul in southern Idlib is getting obliterated today by the Syrian regime & Russia. The town’s civilians fled further north. The regime will capture the town and declare victory atop a pile of rubble. As Assad’s militiamen graffitied on walls “Assad or we burn the country” pic.twitter.com/d1PEiW0Vt4
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) January 28, 2020
The escalatory wave of aerial attacks as well as the SAA’s steady advance forced over 1,000 inhabitants from Ma’arrat al-Numan, Saraqib and Jabal al-Zawiya into displacement. This adds to the 1,500,000 Syrians already displaced in Opposition-held territory. Idlib’s total population is around 3,000,000.
#Syria: Massive exodus of people from Saraqeb and other parts of southern Idleb today as airstrikes and shelling continue to intensify
An endless stream of people fleeing their homes. No-one here is safe. This is a major humanitarian crisis. A major protection crisis pic.twitter.com/2fSfDYlhaE
— Mark Cutts (@MarkCutts) January 27, 2020
The seizure of Ma’arrat al-Numan is the most important step in the SAA’s objective to capture the M5 highway that transits Idlib province on a north-south axis. The M5 highway links the capital Damascus to Syria’s second city Aleppo, and is vital for the Assad regime to rekindle its moribund economy.
Ma’arat al-Numan is also one of few Idlib towns that are not controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a salafist-jihadi organisation that is unofficially linked with Al-Qa’ida (AQ). Since 2018, the city is under the control of the Turkish-backed Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Idlib, and that oppose HTS and other AQ-linked groups.
Meanwhile, the Turkish Defense Ministry said Tuesday that Turkey will not hesitate to retaliate if its observation points are threatened. The Turkish Land Forces operates at least 10 observation posts in Opposition-held territory near the frontline with the pro-government camp. Turkey hoped that the presence of its personnel will deter the SAA and Russia from attacking Idlib. However, the SAA’s ground offensive and Russia’s airstrikes simply avoided the Turkish outposts and captured everything around them. This brought two Turkish observation posts (near Morek and Surman) stranded in SAA-held territory. A third observation post, 20 km south of Ma’arat al-Numan, is in the process of being surrounded.