Syrian troops push toward Turkish observation post in Idlib

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces pushed deeper in their offensive on the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country’s northwest on Sunday, getting very close to a Turkish observation post in the area, opposition activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, reported shelling and airstrikes on rebel-held villages in Idlib on Sunday, saying that at least one civilian was killed.

The province of Idlib has been at the center of a Syrian forces’ push under the cover of airstrikes in recent weeks, with more than a dozen villages captured.

The offensive has already forced tens of thousands of civilians to abandon their homes and flee, including thousands who crossed into neighboring Turkey seeking safety. The attacks resumed after a cease-fire in force since the end of August collapsed recently. Turkey has backed Syrian rebels in the neighboring country’s civil war, now in its ninth year.

Saraqeb and Maaret al-Numan are two major rebel-held towns on the highway linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest. The two towns have been emptied of civilians since becoming the target of the offensive, which aims to reopen the highway, closed since 2012.

Syrian troops, advancing from the east toward Maaret al-Numan, neared the Turkish observation post outside the village of Surman from three sides, according to the Observatory. The Step news agency, an activist collective, said the government troops were now about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Turkish post.

Syrian state media made no mention of the post but said government forces captured several villages near Maaret al-Numan.

Four months ago, Syrian troops captured all territory around another Turkish post in the village of Morek, also in Idlib province, leaving the Turkish monitors only a nearby road to use. No friction has since been reported between Syrian and Turkish troops in Morek.

Relations between Turkey and Syria have deteriorated sharply since Syria’s crisis began in 2011, with Damascus accusing Ankara of undermining its security by allowing thousands of foreign fighters to come in across the border to battle Syrian government forces.

Turkey is a strong backer of rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces and has 12 observation posts in northwestern Syria as part of an agreement reached last year with Russia, a main backer of Assad’s government.

Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants, is home to 3 million civilians and the U.N. has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border.