Syrian rebels ‘forced from key stronghold’

Syrian opposition forces have withdrawn from the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun, deep in the last rebel-held province.

Government forces, backed by Russia, closed in on the town in recent weeks, five years after rebels took over.

Rebels told the BBC that fighters pulled out of the town on Tuesday.

But an official statement from the main jihadist group in Idlib province, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), characterised it as a “redeployment” of forces.

The fate of the town seemed to be in flux on Tuesday, as the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported it had fallen to government forces.

But then HTS issued a statement saying it had redeployed its fighters in the town after coming under a major bombardment.

Khan Sheikhoun has long been a flashpoint in Syria’s civil war.

It was the site of a chemical weapons attack in 2017, which United Nations (UN) experts blamed on Syria. The incident prompted military strikes by the United States.

The conflict in Syria has been going on for more than eight years.

Khan Sheikhoun is a strategically significant battleground in Idlib province. It lies along the Damascus-Aleppo road, which connects the two largest cities and runs through rebel-held territory.

In this case, the main gain for President Assad is that Khan Sheikhoun lies along the M5 road, which is the main economic artery through Syria from north to south, linking Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. Securing the motorway in its entirety is a major goal of the government offensive.

By the same token, taking Khan Sheikhoun could help cut off an important rebel supply route. Losing Khan Sheikhoun would also be a blow to the prestige of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of jihadist and rebel factions, which has all but taken over Idlib.

Its main component is al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The most effective fighting force on the rebel side, it remains designated a terrorist organisation by several countries, including the US – despite somewhat moderating its stance in recent years.

It’s also faced opposition in Idlib itself by other rebel factions and civilian groups. But the estimated three million people in Idlib are unlikely to greet the fall of Khan Sheikhoun to with anything but trepidation. –BBC

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