Pro-government forces claim advance towards major rebel-held city amid Idlib offensive

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Smoke rises following an airstrike in Saraqeb on Monday. Photo courtesy of Saraqeb Today.

AMMAN: Deadly bombardment struck a major rebel-held city in eastern Idlib province on Thursday as pro-government forces reportedly advanced toward it within an ongoing, Russian-backed offensive against the largest opposition enclave in Syria.

At least six people were killed in the southeastern Idlib city of Saraqeb on Thursday during ground bombardment by government forces and airstrikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes, Osama Barish, the director of the local Civil Defense told Syria Direct. By afternoon local time, at least two dozen rockets struck the city with “helicopters and planes continuing to fly overhead,” he added.

Thursday’s bombings came as Syrian state media reported that units of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and their allies advanced to within 15km of the southeastern Idlib city of Saraqeb on Thursday after capturing a half-dozen villages and several strategic hills.

Saraqeb, home to an estimated 50,000 people, lies approximately 15km southeast of Idlib city at an intersection between several major highways in northern Syria, including the strategic Damascus-Aleppo highway.

The city also sits at a midpoint between territory currently controlled by Syrian government forces in eastern Idlib and two Shiite-majority, pro-government towns that have been besieged by rebels for nearly three years.

Government fighter in front of captured building with Ahrar a-Sham logo southeast of Saraqeb Thursday. Photo courtesy of Syrian War Media Network.

The latest government advances come within a weeks-long offensive against rebel positions in eastern Idlib province. In January, the SAA and its allies completed a drive northwards from their positions in northeastern Hama to capture the strategic Abu a-Dhuhur Military Airbase in eastern Idlib.

Advancing westward from Abu a-Dhuhur, pro-government forces reportedly started pushing towards Saraqeb this past Tuesday. Over the past 48 hours of battling opposition forces in southeastern Idlib, pro-regime forces claim to have captured an eight-kilometer stretch of territory from rebels.

On Thursday, pro-government social media accounts posted photos purporting to show SAA soldiers in recently captured territory in eastern Idlib province.

However, a commander from Jaish a-Nasr, a Free Syrian Army-affiliated faction currently battling government forces in eastern Idlib, denied reports of advances on Thursday.

Rashid Muhammad Khan claimed that rebels resisted assaults by pro-regime Iranian militias and recaptured “all territory” originally lost to the regime. “We will not allow Iranian militias to advance,” Khan told Syria Direct.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm conflicting reports of government advances.

‘A sense of panic’

While ground fighting rages southeast of Saraqeb city, some residents there are bracing for an attack while other flee, seeking refuge deeper in rebel territory.

On Wednesday afternoon, pictures surfaced on pro-opposition media outlets claiming to show civilians in Saraqeb digging trenches and building earth berms in preparation for a government-led assault on the city.

Members of the Civil Defense in Saraqeb on Monday. Photo courtesy of Saraqeb Today.

A coalition of rebel factions present in Saraqeb formed an “emergency” operations room on Wednesday to “halt the regime’s advances,” Muhammad al-Aoud, a spokesman for the local Liwa Jabhat Thawar Saraqeb faction, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

The operations room, which includes members of the Free Idlib Army, Failaq a-Sham, Jaish al-Ahrar and several brigades of local fighters, “placed defensive positions” and “reinforced weak spots” around the city this week, al-Aoud told Syria Direct.

An anonymous source with the Idlib-based, Islamist Ahrar a-Sham faction told Syria Direct that it had sent reinforcements to the Saraqeb area this week to shore it up against a regime attack.

But while heavy bombings continue to hit Saraqeb, many of the city’s estimated 50,000 residents—including an estimated 12,000 internally displaced people who live in the city—are now reportedly fleeing their homes.

Since early Thursday morning, families have left their homes headed for the province’s western countryside, Muhammad al-Anwar, a Saraqeb resident and citizen journalist told Syria Direct.

“There is a sense of panic taking over,” 24-year-old Saraqeb resident Haya al-Mustafa told Syria Direct over WhatsApp late Thursday morning. “The bombing is not stopping at all.”

Some residents left their homes on Thursday “without taking anything with them—they were so panicked and fearful,” said al-Mustafa, adding that she plans to flee as well in the coming days.