August 20, 2019

Assad troops force Syrian rebels to retreat from key town
Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture all of Syria as his forces made significant battlefield gains and drove rebel fighters out of a strategic town he once attacked with chemical weapons. Syrian regime troops pushed rebel forces from Khan Sheikhoun, a town where Assad’s jets once dropped chemical weapons and killed nearly 100 people, prompting Donald Trump to launch retaliatory airstrikes in 2017.  The town has been under rebel control since 2014 and its fall marks a victory for Assad as his troops attempt to conquer Idlib, the last opposition-held province in the northwest of Syria.     Rebel forces led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda, said they were retreating to an area south of the town but would continue fighting against the regime’s advancing troops. Regime troops advanced into the outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun but had yet to fully occupy it. Speaking at a meeting with MPs from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, Assad hailed his forces’ progress. “The victories that were achieved prove the determination of the people and the army to defeat terrorists until the liberation of the last inch of Syrian territory,” he said.   He also accused Turkey and Western states of supporting jihadist groups in Syria. Tensions between Turkey and the Syrian regime have been rising sharply as Assad’s forces drive into Idlib, where the Turkish military has 12 military outposts. Regime jets bombed near a Turkish military convoy on Monday, killing three civilians, according to Turkey’s defence ministry. After eight years of civil war, the Idlib region on the border with Turkey is the last major stronghold of opposition  Credit: AFP The fall of Khan Sheikhoun means that one of the Turkish military outposts is now effectively surrounded by regime forces. Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said that his country would not withdraw from the outpost at Morek and warned the Syrian regime not to interfere with it.  “We don’t have an intention such as moving this elsewhere,” Mr Cavusoglu said. “We will do whatever is necessary for the security of our own soldiers and observation posts.” Turkey says it established the outposts to counter jihadist groups and help enforce a ceasefire it brokered alongside Russia. The Syrian regime says the outposts are a violation of Syrian sovereignty but has so far refrained from directly attacking them.  However, as the regime advances further into Idlib the chances of a direct confrontation with Turkish forces seem to be rising.  Assad’s forces launched their offensive against Idlib in April but made relatively little progress until the last few weeks, when they have advanced rapidly with the support of withering airstrikes by Russian warplanes.   Around 500 civilians have been killed since the offensive began, including more than 100 children, according to aid groups. A young girl named Jana was killed by Russian bombing on Tuesday, opposition activists said.   The fighting has displaced over 500,000 people in southern Idlib and the northern of the neighbouring province of Hama. Khain Sheikhoun was seen as important symbol of opposition to Assad by rebel supporters “One of the revolution’s castles is occupied by its destroyers,” said one Syrian man in Idlib.  Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said the Islamic State (Isil) remains a threat in Syria and Iraq but has lost much of its ability to carry out centrally-planned attacks on the West.  "There are places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago," Mr Pompeo told CBS. "But the caliphate is gone in their capacity to conduct external attacks, it's been made much more difficult," he said. The jihadist group was driven from its last territorial stronghold this year but continues to mount insurgency attacks in both Iraq and Syria.
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