MAARET AL-NOMAN, Syria (Dispatches) – Takfiri terrorists and allied militants withdrew from a key area of northwestern Syria Tuesday as government forces pressed an offensive against the terrorist-run Idlib region, a war monitor said.
The town of Khan Shaykhun on the region's southern edge has been a key goal for the government as it lies on the main highway through Idlib province connecting the capital Damascus with second city Aleppo.
After eight years of war, the Idlib region on the border with Turkey is the last major stronghold of foreign-backed terrorists.
Since January, it has been administered by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which is led by Takfiri terrorists from Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The region of some three million people was supposed to be cleared of terrorists under a buffer zone deal signed last year by Moscow and key supporter of militants in Idlib Ankara, but Turkey failed to separate its proxies from the rank of Takfiri militants.
And in recent weeks, Syrian government forces have inched forward, nibbling away at the southern edges of the Takfiri bastion.
In the early hours of Tuesday, foreign-backed militants and their Takfiri allies pulled back from Khan Shaykhun and the countryside to its south, the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in London said.
The withdrawal means an important Turkish observation point in the nearby town of Morek as well as a string of surrounding villages are effectively surrounded by government forces, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday Turkey will not move the military observation post.
On Monday, a Turkish military convoy of around 50 armored vehicles crossed the border into Idlib and headed south along the highway, drawing condemnation from Damascus which denounced it as any act of aggression.
The convoy was at a standstill just north of Khan Shaykhun on Tuesday, after government forces cut the road on into the town.
An AFP correspondent said airstrikes and machine gunfire from government helicopters peppered the road leading north to the town of Maaret al-Noman on Tuesday.
Pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said Monday morning's strike targeted a militant vehicle scouting the road in front of the Turkish convoy.
"The Syrian army in its own way sent a clear message to the Turkish regime by forcing convoys sent by Ankara to help the terrorists in Khan Shaykhun to come to a halt," it said.
It was a "clear warning against any Turkish attempt to resuscitate the terrorists".
Cavusoglu said Turkey was in contact with Russia "at every level” following Monday’s incident to implement a ceasefire in the Idlib region of northwest Syria.
All roads leading out of the area are either controlled by government forces or within range of their guns, he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, said Monday that Moscow supports the Syrian army's offensive against "terrorists" in Idlib, during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron.
"We support the efforts of the Syrian army... to end these terrorist threats" in Idlib, Putin said after Macron called for a ceasefire in Idlib.
Russia has military servicemen stationed on the ground in the Idlib region and is following the situation there closely, Interfax news agency cited Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying on Tuesday. He said any attacks carried out by militants in Idlib’s de-escalation zone would be forcefully suppressed.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham controls most of Idlib province as well as parts of the neighboring provinces of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia.
Capturing Khan Shaykhun would be an important gain for President Bashar al-Assad into the northwestern region where his bid to recover "every inch” of Syria has run into complications including Turkish forces on the ground.
Syrian state media, in a broadcast from near the town, reported that government forces had widened their control including by seizing a highway running through Khan Shaykhun, which was targeted in a sarin poison gas attack in 2017.
A military source told Reuters the town was under army control after the terrorists were caught in a pincer movement and fled.
The Observatory said terrorists had withdrawn from their last piece of territory in neighboring Hama province in addition to Khan Shaykhun.
Khan Shaykhun has been in terrorist hands since 2014. The terrorists’ territorial foothold in neighboring Hama dates back to the earliest days of the war.