Syria's last major opposition bastion: What's next?
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The Syrian government's recapture Wednesday of the key highway town of Maaret al-Numan is the latest step in a regime push to retake the opposition's last major bastion.
How important is the town to the Damascus government, what's left of the ever-shrinking region, largely dominated by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate though other opposition groups are also present, and where are regime forces likely to move in next?
A major blow?
Russia-backed government forces have retaken large parts of Syria from rebels and jihadists since 2015, and now control around 70 percent of the country.
Over the past year, regime forces have upped their deadly bombardment of the last major bastion of Idlib region in northwest Syria, slowly chipping away at it from the south.
The latest key town to fall is Maaret al-Numan, which lies on the key M5 highway linking the capital to second city and once industrial hub Aleppo.
"The regime's recapture of Maaret al-Numan is a major symbolic and strategic blow to the Syrian opposition," said Syria analyst Samuel Ramani.
"Maaret al-Numan has been a nerve centre for popular unrest against (President Bashar al-) Assad's government since the start of the revolution in 2011."
The town's recapture brings the government a step closer to recapturing the whole of the M5 highway, long in its sights as it seeks to revive Syria's ailing economy.
Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group said it was part of a long-term government strategy.
"Damascus is evidently determined to retake the key highways crisscrossing Idlib and linking other, more economically relevant parts of Syria," he said.
Now Maaret al-Numan has been retaken, the rebel bastion has shrunk to just over half of Idlib province as well as adjacent slivers of Aleppo and Latakia, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It is home to some three million people, half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
The spike in violence since the start of December has seen more than 388,000 people displaced from their homes in Idlib and western Aleppo, the United Nations says.
That adds to some 400,000 already displaced by deadly bombardment unleashed in late April.
Many who fled their homes have sought refuge along the Turkish border, setting up makeshift shelters among the olive trees.
Nicholas Heras of the Institute for the Study of War said the regime is likely trying to corner anti-government forces near the frontier with rebel backer Turkey.
"Assad's forces are carefully being directed by Russia to capture significant territory up to the strategic M5 highway, in order to box the Syrian rebels into a rump zone from the highway to the Turkish border," he told AFP.
The outcome, according to Heras, is an "inevitable regime victory".
Where to next?
After Wednesday's victory, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) of the M5 remain outside regime control, the Britain-based Observatory says.
Heller said it was a "near certainty" that regime forces will next move towards Saraqeb, the next town northwards on the coveted M5.
Saraqeb, he points out, also sits at the junction of the M4, which runs west-to-east across Idlib, linking the coastal regime stronghold of Latakia to Aleppo.
Russian and regime warplanes in recent days have bombed Saraqeb and surrounding towns and villages, according to the Observatory, in what may be a prelude to a land assault.
The monitor says battles are currently raging within 10 kilometres of the town, which has been near emptied of its inhabitants by a mass exodus that began on January 24.
© 2020 AFP