Insurgent groups have withdrawn from Khan Sheikhun in north-west Syria, clearing the way for pro-government forces to enter the town, in a milestone moment in the war for Idlib province, the country’s last major rebel stronghold.
The development came hours after Turkey deployed tanks and armoured cars deep into Syria, partly in response to days of advances by forces fighting on behalf of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.
Khan Sheikhun has been a key target in a military campaign launched in late April. The campaign had stalled until recent days, despite relentless Russian-led airstrikes that had decimated communities in southern Idlib and prompted up to 500,000 people to flee their homes.
Aid agencies said on Tuesday the influx of displaced people from southern and central Idlib had left them at breaking point. Camps close to Turkey were already overwhelmed before the fighting intensified and, with the Turkish border sealed, those fleeing have nowhere left to run.
“The onslaught on civilians and civilian infrastructure continues to run rampant,” said the International Rescue Committee’s Syria director, Rehana Zawar. “The UN has said the current escalation shows ‘a level of destruction consistent with a bombing campaign aimed at a scorched earth policy’. At least 45 schools have been impacted by the violence and 42 attacks on healthcare have been reported since the upsurge began.
Medical facilities across southern Idlib have been systematically destroyed by airstrikes launched by Russia and the Syrian air force, which have also taken a heavy toll on bakeries and marketplaces.
Much of Khan Sheikhun, the site of a chemical weapons attack in April 2017 that killed an estimated 92 people, had been levelled before insurgents spearheaded by the al-Qaida-linked extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) left the town.
HTS said on Tuesday it had made “a redeployment” and its fighters had withdrawn south of the town. It said they would continue to defend the territory from there.
The Turkish military set up observation posts just north of the town, overlooking a main road between Idlib city and Hama province, the fate of which had made Khan Sheikhun a prized possession.
Extremist groups have blended with other anti-Assad fighters throughout Idlib and dominate parts of the province. Their presence has been used as a pretext by Russia and Syria to recapture all of north-western Syria, where up to 3 million people have taken refuge from all corners of the country.
Idlib has become the last redoubt of those who rose up against Assad during the Arab revolts of 2011. As Syria’s towns and cities have been pummelled and the regime – heavily backed by Iran and Russia – has clawed back early losses, displaced populations have been shepherded to the area.
Among them are whole communities from vanquished neighbourhoods near Damascus and from Homs, where the anti-Assad uprising gained momentum in the early years of the war. People from opposition areas of Aleppo and border towns near Lebanon were also sent to Idlib, which has become the last destination for Syria’s displaced. Some there have formed alliances with extremists in order to survive.
Winning back Idlib has become a primary goal of the Syrian leader and Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, which has committed troops and proxies extensively elsewhere in the war. Both sides have been instrumental in saving the central government from defeat elsewhere and shoring up its fortunes in Idlib.
Turkey has insisted it will not let the province fall militarily. To do so would inevitably send tens of thousands of refugees towards its borders at a time when Turkish authorities have been rounding up and deporting Syrian citizens in Istanbul and cities closer to the border.
Ankara, Moscow and Tehran have long pushed for a political solution to the crisis. However, their interests frequently diverge as the war winds down. Turkey, a full-throated supporter of opposition groups in the conflict’s early years, views the aftermath as a chance to change the dynamic with Kurds near the border. Russia and Iran are looking to recoup heavy investments in blood and treasure that they have made in defence of Assad.
Khan Sheikhun has become a focal point of the fight for Idlib because of its position on a main highway linking Idlib city with Hama to the south. The town was home to about one million people, nearly 700,000 of them displaced by fighting in other parts of the country, before the government offensive began in April. In recent days hundreds of civilians remained in the town.
In April 2017 a sarin attack struck the centre of the town, killing 92 people and maiming more than 200. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and a UN investigation blamed a Syrian regime jet for the strike. In retaliation, Donald Trump ordered the bombing of the base from which the jet had taken off.