Syrian troops 'shell Idlib to pave way for assault'
Syrian government forces have shelled rebel and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) positions in the northwestern province of Idlib, a UK-based activist group has said, as reinforcements arrived ahead of an expected assault.
Artillery and rocket fire on Thursday morning slammed into territory around Jisr al-Shughur, a key town in the southwestern part of the province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The government also dropped leaflets warning residents of an impending assault
The province is the largest piece of territory still in rebel hands, and President Bashar al-Assad had warned it would be his military's next priority.
Around 60 percent of it is now held by HTS, which is led by al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate, while the rest is controlled by rival opposition factions.
'Regime reinforcements including equipment, soldiers, vehicles and ammunition have been arriving since Tuesday'
- Rami Abdurrahman, Observatory director
"The shelling is in preparation for an assault but there has been no ground advance yet," said the Observatory's director, Rami Abdurrahman.
"Regime reinforcements including equipment, soldiers, vehicles and ammunition have been arriving since Tuesday," he told the AFP news agency.
The reinforcements were being distributed along three government-held fronts, including in neighbouring Latakia province just west of Jisr al-Shughur, in the Sahl al-Ghab plain that lies south of Idlib, and in a sliver of the province's southeast that is already in government hands, the Observatory said.
The al-Watan daily, which is close to the government, also reported on Thursday that army troops had bombed positions in the area.
Idlib, which has escaped government control since 2015, lies along the border with Turkey but is otherwise nearly completely surrounded by government-held territory.
The Syrian army were reportedly urging people in Idlib to agree to a return of state rule and telling them the war was nearing its end in leaflets dropped over the province on Thursday.
"Your cooperation with the Syrian Arab Army will release you from the rule of militants and terrorists, and will preserve your and your families' lives," declared the leaflets that were dropped in rural areas near Idlib city.
"We call upon you to join local reconciliation [agreements] as many others in Syria have done," said the leaflet in the name of the army command, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.
Such agreements, concluded at the local level, have been a tool for helping the Syrian government to reestablish control over numerous areas and have often been agreed when rebel fighters are on the brink of military defeat.
The government says the agreements grant an amnesty to rebels who are willing to live under state rule again, unless private law suits have been brought against them. The terms also include that they give up weapons.
But many rebels, civilian dissidents and others have instead opted to take safe passage to the opposition-held northwest, an arc of territory at the Turkish border that stretches from Idlib to the city of Jarablus on the Euphrates River.
Syrians have fled to Idlib province from other parts of the country as the government has advanced, and the UN has warned that an offensive there could force 2.5 million people towards the Turkish border in the event of fighting.
NATO member Turkey has warned against any offensive in Idlib, and is pressing Russia to make sure this does not happen. Turkey has established 12 military observation posts in the northwest under an agreement with Russia and Iran.
UN Humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said that representatives from Russia, Iran and Turkey told a meeting of the Syria humanitarian taskforce on Thursday that they would do their utmost to avoid a battle in the province. He said he hoped a deal would be reached between diplomats and military envoys to avoid a "bloodbath".
But he also said that the UN is preparing for a battle and will ask Turkey to keep its borders open to allow civilians to flee if the need arose.
'Chiefs of treason'
Syrian troops have recaptured key areas of the country in recent months with help from ally Russia, which has brokered a string of surrender deals with rebels.
Apparently fearing a similar arrangement for Idlib, HTS has been arresting dozens of figures in the province that have been go-betweens with the government.
Early on Thursday, the group detained several such figures from villages in Idlib's southeast, calling them "chiefs of treason," according to an HTS-linked media agency.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria, said it had documented more than 100 such arrests by HTS and rival forces this week alone.
Idlib province is home to around 2.5 million people, including rebels and civilians transferred en masse from other territory that fell to Syrian troops after intense assaults.