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Pro-government forces enter key Syrian rebel town of Maaret al-Numan

Rebel source accuses militant group HTS of holding back its firepower as Assad's troops make significant gains
Displaced Syrians from northwest Syria ride on a truck with belongings (Reuters)

Pro-Syrian government forces have entered the strategic Idlib town of Maaret al-Numan, dealing a severe blow to the rebel forces defending it.

Some sources have reported that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have captured the town in its entirety, however, others suggest that fighting is ongoing in its western outskirts and a rebel counterattack is pushing back.

Either way, the advance is a significant victory for Assad's troops, who have been staging a months-long assault with Russian backing on Idlib province, the opposition's last redoubt.

One rebel fighter, speaking to Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity, said a "miracle" was needed to push back the offensive.

'We are in a very desperate position and we need a miracle'

- Rebel fighter

“We need new heavy arms to deter Russia’s advanced weaponry," he said. "We possess anti-armour missiles but they are old and undeveloped. They cannot counter modern Russian tanks.”

Maaret al-Numan, a town long-held by rebel groups, was described as a "big loss for the Syrian revolution" by the fighter.

"We are in a very desperate position and we need a miracle," he said.

He added that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the militant group who largely controls Idlib province, was not putting all its forces into the battle, putting opposition forces at a greater disadvantage.

The town has reportedly been largely destroyed and deserted, as bombings and shelling in recent days obliterated homes and vital infrastructure.

“Maarat al-Numan and surrounding towns have been deserted by civilians. People are afraid to get killed in the offensive, or get detained," said displaced activist Akram al-Masri from the nearby town of Hish.

Thousands flee

Assad's assault has in recent weeks sent hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing towards the Turkish border.

On Monday, thousands of people were seen heading north out of the towns of Ariha and Saraqib. Roads were jam-packed with cars, trucks and bikes.

A aerial photo shows displaced Syrians driving through Hazano in the northern countryside of Idlib, after fleeing on 28 January (AFP)
An aerial photo shows displaced Syrians driving through Hazano in the northern countryside of Idlib, after fleeing on 28 January (AFP)

Anas al-Swadi, from Hish, told MEE that he could not afford the costs of displacement.

“During my first days of displacement, the northern areas were very expensive and water wasn’t available, so my father and I came back to our town," he said.

But Swadi’s home was later destroyed and his father was killed. Eventually, he was forced to flee Hish again as pro-government forces advanced in the area.

Most of the towns captured by Damascus in the last year are still empty, with civilians afraid to return to their hometowns.

'Maarat al-Numan and surrounding towns have been deserted by civilians. People are afraid to get killed in the offensive, or get detained'

- Akram al-Masri, activist

“Most of the people from my town have been displaced. Each of them is now displaced in a different location to everyone else," said Swadi.

In the past 12 days alone, some 120,000 people have fled from areas of the Idlib and Aleppo countryside under attack, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group.

Rebel-backer Turkey, which already hosts some 3.5 million Syrian refugees, is concerned that millions more could now attempt to cross the border.

Ankara has a military presence in Idlib and its environs, with several observation points. However, as pro-Syrian forces have moved north, Turkey has been compelled to reassess its deployment.

Early on Tuesday, a large Turkish military convoy arrived in the area and installed a new observation post south of Saraqeb, a strategic area that overlooks both the M4 and M5 highways.

Damascus is seeking to control the two major arteries that run between government-held cities.

As pro-Assad forces made gains, Turkey's defence ministry warned his country would retaliate "in the strongest way, without hesitation" against any attack on its observation posts in Idlib.