DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian government forces captured one of the largest and most strategic rebel-held towns in the country’s northwest, the Syrian military and opposition activists said Wednesday, part of a Russian-backed military assault that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to safer areas.
The town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province, which had been in rebel hands since 2012, sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and is considered critical to President Bashar Assad's forces. The town is now largely empty as a result of intense bombardment in recent weeks.
Its capture is the latest in a series of military triumphs for Assad. His forces have retaken control of most of the country from rebel fighters, largely because of blanket air support from Russia, which helped turn the tide in the nearly nine-year civil war.
Syria's nearly nine-year conflict has left more than 400,000 people dead and displaced half of Syria's population, including more than 5 million who are refugees, mostly in neighboring countries.
U.S. troops at military outposts ín eastern Syria asked variations of the same question to their top commander Saturday: What is our future here? What are the goals we need to think about?
An exception to the Syrian government's success in retaking territory from rebel groups has been Idlib province in the northwestern corner of the country near the Turkish border, which is held by opposition fighters and is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants. The province is home to some 3 million people, many of them internally displaced.
Syrian government forces have been on the offensive for more than a month in Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in the country. But in recent days, the government captured more than a dozen villages in the area as the insurgents' defenses began to crumble.
"Our armed forces continued operations in southern parts of Idlib with the aim of putting an end to crimes committed by terrorist groups," said army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ali Mayhoub. He listed more than a dozen villages and towns captured, including Maaret al-Numan.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said insurgents withdrew from the town late Tuesday. Syrian troops had left a road west of the town opened apparently to give a chance for insurgents to pull out and to avoid street battles inside the town.
But the push appears to have angered Turkey, which backs the opposition and has for years coordinated with Russia, a main backer of Assad, during the conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed frustration with Moscow over its failure to halt Syrian government attacks in Idlib.
Erdogan said Russia is not loyal to agreements reached with Turkey over the situation in Idlib, including a cease-fire that collapsed earlier this month. He said he is in contact with the Russians to tell them to stop the bombing “in Idlib or our patience will run out.”
Amid intense airstrikes and heavy bombardment, trucks loaded with displaced people from areas surrounding Maaret al-Numan, including Jabal al-Zawiya, headed toward areas near the Turkish border, already bursting with internally displaced people.
“Only God knows where our destination will be, where we will find a house. We do not know anything, maybe we will sleep in the car,” said one woman who was among those fleeing with her family Tuesday. She declined to give her name, fearing for her safety.
The Syrian Response Coordination Group, a relief group active in northwestern Syria, reported that until the end of December more than 216,000 people fled their homes in Idlib. In a new release, the group said 167,000 fled since the beginning of January, bringing the total number to more than 383,000 people.
The Islamic State group’s self-styled “caliphate” across parts of Iraq and Syria seemed largely defeated last year, with the loss of its territory, the killing of its founder in a U.S. raid and an unprecedented crackdown on its social media propaganda machine.
Farther north, government forces began an offensive on the western suburbs of Aleppo in an attempt to push insurgents away from Syria's largest city. Around noon Wednesday, Syrian troops captured a major suburb west of Aleppo, according to state media.
Maaret al-Numan sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, once Syria's main commercial hub. With the town's fall, government forces are now closer to retaking the critical north-south highway.
In August, Syrian troops captured another town along the highway, Khan Sheikhoun. Now that Syrian troops are in control of Maaret al-Numan, their next target is likely to be Saraqeb, which would become the last major town on the M5 highway that remains outside government control.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.