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Is the Syrian regime about to retake Idlib?

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Beirut (AFP)

Syria's regime has increased its deadly bombardment of Idlib in recent weeks, but analysts say that is unlikely to signal an all-out offensive on the jihadist bastion.

Why the alarm?

Eight years into Syria's civil war, the government has notched up a series of victories against rebels and jihadists, and controls around 60 percent of the country.

Two regions largely remain beyond its control: a Kurdish-held swathe of the northeast and a northwestern region controlled by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The jihadist bastion is supposed to be protected from any massive onslaught by a buffer zone deal signed in September by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey, which shares a border with Idlib.

But deadly bombardment by the regime and its Russian ally has spiked in recent weeks, and pro-government fighters have seized several towns on its southern flank.

The increased air strikes and rocket fire since late April have killed more than 270 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

At least 13 were killed on Wednesday alone, the Britain-based monitor said.

The spike in violence has also displaced some 270,000 people from their homes, knocked 19 hospitals out of service and damaged several more, the United Nations says.

Is this a full-blown offensive?

But analysts are sceptical that the regime's bombing is the start of an all-out battle for the enclave.

"I strongly doubt this offensive will aim to retake the entire Idlib region," said Aron Lund, from US think tank The Century Foundation.

"Retaking the whole area would be a massive undertaking that Turkey would be sure to resist, not least because it would send hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming toward the Turkish border."

Under the buffer zone deal signed in September, jihadists were supposed to withdraw from the planned demilitarised zone.

Turkish troops were to deploy to observation points around it, and traffic would be restored to two commercial arteries running through the province.

Turkish forces have since deployed as monitors, but the jihadists never pulled back from the planned buffer and the roads were not re-opened.

Yet analysts say the deal, born of the so-called Astana negotiations track between Russia, fellow regime ally Iran, and Turkey, is not dead yet.

"Russia doesn't want to cut the last thread of the Astana process or its relationship with the Turks," said Nawar Oliver, an analyst from the Turkey-based Omran Centre for Strategic Studies.

"There's still hope."

The Observatory said Turkish troops were rotated at one of the monitoring points near Idlib as recently as Tuesday.

So what does the regime want?

Fellow analyst Sam Heller said the regime was instead seeking gains against HTS and allied rebels on the region's peripheries.

"Rather than a total offensive, Damascus and Moscow instead seem to be aiming for a few specific areas along the edge of the larger Idlib area," the International Crisis Group analyst said.

Capturing areas like the western flank of the bastion "will put more distance between rebels and government-held areas they've shelled", including the key Russian airbase of Hmeimim, he said.

Damascus and Moscow have repeatedly accused "terrorist groups" -- a catch-all term for jihadists and more moderate rebels -- of using Idlib to launch attacks against Hmeimim.

But the regime might also be also piling pressure on Turkey to further implement the terms of the September deal, including the opening of the two key highways, Heller said.

They include a section of the M5, a road that before the war crossed the entire country, connecting the Turkish frontier in the north with the Jordanian border in the south.

In recent years, the regime has retaken control of the majority of that artery, to the south of Idlib.

President Bashar al-Assad's regime has repeatedly said that eventually all of Idlib will return to regime control.

Syria's UN envoy Bashar Jaafari on Tuesday said Damascus "will spare no effort" to free the residents of Idlib from jihadist control.

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