Idlib: Syrian army snatches control of Maaret al-Numan from rebels

The town is located on the M5 highway, which connects Damascus to Aleppo.  Today it is semi-deserted, but has a high symbolic and strategic value.  The militiamen who controlled it fled.  UN estimates speak of at least 358 thousand people who fled since December to avoid armed clashes.  Fears about an escalation of the "humanitarian catastrophe".



Damascus (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Syrian security forces have regained control of a semi-deserted town, but of high symbolic value and great strategic importance, in the western sector of the country, along the highway that connects Aleppo to Hama. 

The announcement came yesterday from official state media that "the army has taken over much of the Maaret al-Numan neighborhoods" and the military is now clearing the area of ‚Äč‚Äčanti-personnel mines and other threats left by  militants on the run.

The military loyal to the Damascus government are "for the first time in eight years" inside the town in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last stronghold of the anti-Assad rebels supported by Turkey.  According to reports from the London-based NGO Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, most of the militiamen and jihadists had already fled earlier with the first attacks carried out by the loyalist army.

Maaret al-Numan is located on the M5 highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo, once the economic and commercial capital of Syria.  The road is considered fundamental by the government to be able to re-establish ties with Aleppo and revive the country's economy.  It is the second most important urban center in the Idlib province and is under the control of the rebels in 2012;  the Syrian army already controls 25 countries and villages in the area.

The attack is part of the broader offensive launched by the Syrian army, with the support of the Russian ally, in the north-west of the country in a sector dominated by the Islamic extremist group Hayat Tahrir al Sham.  According to the United Nations, at least 358 thousand people have left their homes since last December to escape armed clashes.

In the Idlib region there were (before the war) at least three million people;  of these, half now live in internally displaced persons in other areas of the country.  Maaret al-Numan was one of the first towns in the region to embrace the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad in spring 2011. According to Misty Buswell, of the International Relief Committee, a further escalation will help aggravate a "humanitarian catastrophe  already in place ”, while Turkey is ready to respond if its posts in the area are hit.