DAMASCUS, Feb 17, (AP): Syria’s military announced on Monday that its troops have regained control of territories in northwestern Syria “in record time,” vowing to continue to chase armed groups “wherever they are.” The announcement came hours after troops consolidated the government’s hold over the key Aleppo province, capturing over 30 villages and hamlets in the western countryside in a single day and securing the provincial capital that had for years remained within range of opposition fire.
Troops were removing barriers and roadblocks on Monday in villages and districts that were earlier controlled by Syrian rebels, state TV reported. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, reported clashes in Jabal Sheik Akeel, northwest of the city of Aleppo, the provincial capital.
Rescuers and a medical aid worker said airstrikes Monday on Darat Izza, a town still in opposition hands in northwestern Aleppo, put two health facilities out of service. One hospital was directly hit, wounding two staffers, said Mazen Kewara of the Syrian American Medical Society, a group that supports the hospital’s dialysis unit.
Footage from the rescue team, Syrian Civil Defense, showed extensive damage. Another airstrike hit close by the other medical facility, some 150 meters (yards) away. Syrian rebels were driven out of the city’s eastern quarters in late 2016, which they had controlled for years while battling government forces in charge in the western section.
However, rebel groups continued to target government forces from outside the city with mortar rounds. They also controlled large parts of western rural Aleppo, territories that linked them to Idlib province, the opposition’s last major stronghold.
The new advances, along with securing a key highway that ran through rebel territory, are set to facilitate movement between northern and southern Syria, including the city of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial center before the war. The Shaam Network, an opposition media platform, said the advances cut the rebels’ supply line, effectively driving them out of the area.
The developments sparked late night celebrations in the city, with state media showing images of residents waving flags and dancing in the streets packed with vehicles. Since December, Syrian troops have been on the offensive, biting bit by bit at the crowded rebel enclave, home to over 3 million people.
The offensive displaced more than 800,000 people, sparking one of the largest humanitarian crisis in the nine-year war. Gen Ali Mayhoub, spokesman for the Syrian Armed Forces, said in a televised speech that Syrian troops were continuing their ground advances to “eradicate what is left of terrorist groups” in Syria, congratulating the soldiers for the swift advances in “record time.”
The armed opposition is now squeezed into a shrinking area of nearby Idlib province, where the government is also on the offensive, as well as the sliver of adjacent territory in western Aleppo. Also, parts of northern Aleppo region, which straddles the border with Turkey, is administered by Turkey and allied Syrian factions. Another segment of the province further west is controlled by Kurdish-led forces, allied with the United States.
Those two parts have not been part of the government offensive. Turkey, which backs the opposition, has sent thousands of troops and equipment into the opposition enclave, in an attempt to stall the Syrian government’s advance. Ankara has also called for an end to the Syrian government offensive Already home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, Turkey fears a new wave may overwhelm its borders. The United Nations has also called for a cease-fire.
Support from Russia and Iran has enabled Syrian troops to regain control of much of the territories they had lost to armed groups who worked to topple Assad.
Over 400,000 people have been killed and half of Syria’s population displaced since peaceful protests in 2011 turned into a civil war. Syria’s President Bashar Assad said on Sunday his government was determined to win back all Syrian territories, as state media reported significant advances against the last rebel held enclaves in the country’s northwest.
“The Syrian people are determined to liberate all Syrian territories,” President Assad said according to the Syrian state news agency on Sunday. Assad was speaking during a meeting with visiting Iranian parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani. Both Iran and Russia have heavily backed Assad in the civil war. The Syrian leader also claimed “terrorists” in northwestern Syria were using residents as “human shields,” in an attempt to stop Syrian troops from advancing into the territory.
Syria’s government considers all the opposition in the nine-year war as “terrorists” and has repeatedly leveled accusation that they take residents of areas they control as hostages. But many of the displaced in Syria’s Idlib province have fled the fighting in other parts of the country, choosing to live in areas outside of government control.