DAMASCUS (Dispatches) -- Syrian troops began clearing barricades from the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo on Saturday after recovering full control of the road in an offensive, Syrian state media reported.
It marks a major gain for the Syrian people and President Bashar al-Assad, as reopening the M5 highway will restore the shortest route between the country’s two biggest cities for the first time in more than seven years of conflict.
A reporter with state-run Al-Ikhbariya news channel, broadcasting from the highway on the Aleppo outskirts, said clearing the barriers started in the early hours of Saturday.
Restoring Syria’s control over the M5 has been seen as a major objective of a offensive that has been underway since early December in the terrorist-held northwest.
The so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war using a network of sources on the ground, said government forces had captured a belt of territory around the road, securing it completely.
Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters the offensive may stop now that the road had been secured but added that the government could yet seek to seize more ground north of Aleppo to secure the city.
The reopening of the highway was part of a 2018 agreement between Russia and Turkey which was concluded with the stated aim of stabilizing the situation in the Idlib region of the northwest, a major foothold for the foreign-backed militancy.
The pact called for establishing a demilitarized zone between the warring sides in addition to the reopening of a second highway, the main road linking Aleppo with the government-held coastal region.
In agreement with Russia, Turkish forces deployed into the northwest at a dozen observation posts.
However, Turkey has failed to drive out Takfiri terrorists out of the demilitarized zone, allowing them to carry out deadly attacks on Syrian and Russian troops.
Tensions have spiraled between Russia and Turkey during the latest offensive, as 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed by Syrian attacks in the past two weeks.
Turkey has vowed to drive back Syrian troops beyond the Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of this month.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay claimed on Saturday Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in the Idlib region in line with its de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran.
Oktay told broadcaster NTV that
Turkey was determined to stop the Syrian government advances in Idlib, repeating a threat that Ankara would use military power to push back Syrian forces if they did not withdraw by the end of February. He said Turkey had conveyed its position on Idlib to Russia during the talks.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later said on Saturday Turkey wanted to solve issues with Russia through diplomacy but will take other steps if necessary.
Speaking to reporters during the Munich Security Conference, Cavusoglu said a Turkish delegation would go to Moscow on Monday to hold talks over Idlib, adding that he would also meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov later on Saturday.
Russia’s foreign ministry on Thursday called on Turkey to refrain from making provocative statements about events in Syria.
The ministry said it was "perplexed” by comments made by a Turkish official who had said Ankara held Russia and Syria’s government responsible for the death of Turkish servicemen.
Since last week, Ankara has deployed more than 1,000 troops to its military posts in Idlib.