Assad Troops Expand Offensive on Rebels in Northeast Syria Despite Calls for Calm

Syrian regime soldiers push into last rebel stronghold as UN Security Council calls on Assad to honor cease-fire

Smoke billows following shelling in Khan Sheykun in Syria's jihadist-held Idlib province on May 10, 2019.
AFP

Syria activists and media say government forces are expanding their ground offensive in northwestern Syria, pushing into the last rebel stronghold despite calls for honoring a cease-fire put in place in September.

The pro-government Military Media Center says Saturday that troops battled insurgents led by an al-Qaida-linked militant group out of Midan Ghazal village, which falls inside Idlib province. The government offensive has so far focused on areas at the southern edge of the rebel stronghold, in the Ghab plains and Hama province.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed troops gained new ground, but said all were in Hama. It said government forces control nine villages.

>> Read more: After victory, Putin steps into Syrian minefield | Analysis ■ Netanyahu outfoxed Russia, Iran and ISIS with his cynical, ruthless Syria policy | Analysis 

Fighting in the area, which began on April 30, has been the worst breach of a September cease-fire. Members of the UN Security Council urged on Friday a return to calm.

Northwest Syria is the only significant territory still in rebel hands. The area being targeted in the latest bombardment was the subject of a Russian-Turkish agreement last September to hold off a government offensive.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has recaptured most of the country from rebels since Russia joined the war on his side in 2015, deploying its air power in support of the army and allied Iran-backed militias.

The United Nations has said the northwestern Idlib region is home to 3 million people, half of whom have already fled their homes at least once during the conflict, and that a big battle there risks causing a new humanitarian disaster.

Bombardments since April 28 have displaced more than 158,000 people, the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) said on Monday.