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Syrian government forces consolidate grip around Aleppo

Turkish and Russian officials will discuss Assad's Idlib offensive in Moscow on Monday
Syrian rebels fire from position in countryside of Idlib towards government forces on Sunday (AFP)

Syrian government forces made new gains on Sunday in their offensive against the last major rebel bastion in the northwest, seizing villages and towns around the second city Aleppo, state media and a monitor said.

Backed by Russian air strikes, government forces have kept up the assault on the Idlib region and areas of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces since December, AFP said, a day before a new round of talks between Turkey and Russia on the escalation in the area.

On Sunday, government forces "were in control of all the villages and small towns around Aleppo for the first time since 2012", the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The move enabled forces of President Bashar al-Assad to push back rebels from the vicinity of Aleppo and "secure the city", it added.

The Syrian government's recent advances in the northwest have upset fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict but have collaborated towards a political solution to the war, Reuters said.

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Turkey, which backs rebels looking to oust Assad, has been outraged since Syrian attacks in the Idlib region killed 13 Turkish troops. It has urged Russia to stop the attacks, warning it would use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of the month.

Still, the Observatory said about 30 villages and small towns were captured by Syrian government forces that "advanced rapidly in the north and west of Aleppo province after insurgents pulled back".

"In day one, they took an area where for eight years they could not take a single village," said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the UK-based Observatory.

Syrian state television confirmed the report and said army units "have liberated all the villages and small towns west of Aleppo city".

It also broadcast footage purporting to show Aleppo residents celebrating the army's advance.

Government forces have for weeks been making gains in northwestern Syria and chipping away at territory held by rebel groups, focusing their latest operations on the west of Aleppo province.

The Observatory said the drive aims to establish a "security belt" around Aleppo, which government forces fully retook from rebels in 2016 but is still targeted by rocket fire.

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Last week, government forces seized control of the strategic M5 highway that connects the capital Damascus to the former economic hub of Aleppo, which is economically vital for the government.

On Friday, they captured a key base lost to the rebels in 2012 just west of Aleppo.

Backed by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, Assad's forces now control more than 70 percent of Syria and the president has repeatedly vowed to retake the entire country.

On Sunday, Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani was in Damascus where he held talks with Assad who, according to the presidency, insisted on the people's "determination" to "liberate all of Syria".

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday that he told his Russian counterpart attacks in Idlib must stop immediately and a lasting ceasefire has to be achieved.

"We told Russia... that the aggression in Idlib must stop and that a lasting ceasefire has to be achieved now," Cavusoglu told reporters during a briefing at the Munich Security Conference, adding that Turkish and Russian officials will discuss the issue in Moscow on Monday.

The offensive has triggered the largest wave of displacement in Syria's civil war, with about 800,000 people fleeing since December, the UN says. During the same period, more than 380 civilians have been killed, according to the Observatory.

More than 380,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict broke out almost nine years ago with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

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