Army presses IS in north Syria: monitor, military source

Syrian civil defence volunteers, known as the White Helmets, look for survivors amidst the debris following reported government airstrike on the Syrian town of Ariha, in the northwestern province of Idlib, on February 27, 2017

Beirut (AFP) – Syrian government forces seized territory from the Islamic State group on several fronts in the country’s north on Monday, a monitor and military source told AFP.

Fighting rocked the strategic province of Aleppo, which borders Turkey and has seen some of the worst violence of Syria’s nearly six-year conflict.

On Monday, troops “seized 18 towns and villages, including the town of Taduf and a number of strategic hilltops in eastern Aleppo province, totalling about 600 square kilometres (230 square miles),” a Syrian military source said.

Taduf had been held by IS jihadists and lies near Al-Bab, a key town where rebels backed by Turkish soldiers, artillery and air power defeated IS last week.

Regime forces on Monday also moved into nearly two dozen villages abandoned by IS near the town of Manbij, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Manbij is held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

IS withdrew from the area earlier Monday in what Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman called a sign of “swift collapse” of jihadist ranks.

“Regime forces moved into those 23 villages, linking up with SDF forces in the area,” he said.

SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP on Monday that his forces would not clash with the regime there. 

“We are adjacent to regime forces in several places (across northern Syria), and there’s been a kind of truce between us. So there will not be clashes between us” at Manbij, Sello said. 

The Observatory says the government advance in the area is part of a bid to block Turkish-backed forces from expanding their zones of control in Aleppo province.

But regime troops are also trying to advance east to reach IS-held Khafsah, the main station pumping water into Aleppo city, Abdel Rahman said.

– Regime raids kill 13 –

Residents of the northern city have been had no water for 42 days, after IS jihadists cut the supply at Khafsah around 90 kilometres (55 miles) away.

And further south, government troops fought to within four kilometres of the ancient desert city of Palmyra, which IS recaptured in December.

“Regime forces speedily advanced around Palmyra, specifically from the northwest and southwest, capturing a string of hilltops that allow them to fire on the oil and gas fields in the area,” Abdel Rahman said.

Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule but has since spiralled into a multi-front war pitting government forces, rebels, jihadists and Kurds against each other.

Government air raids on the northwest province of Idlib killed at least 13 civilians overnight, the Observatory said.

It had originally given a preliminary toll of 11 dead in the bombardment of Ariha. 

Leith Fares, a rescue worker in Ariha, told AFP his team had pulled at least 20 wounded people from the rubble.

“We’ve been working since 3:00 am (0100 GMT) to rescue victims still under the rubble of two four-storey buildings that totally collapsed on the residents inside,” he said.

“We’re still looking for two families, estimated at eight to 10 members each, that are still trapped,” Fares said.

The deaths come two days after 10 civilians were killed in government air strikes on Ariha, held since spring 2015 by an anti-regime coalition dominated by jihadists.

Idlib province has been battered by heavy air strikes in recent weeks, with intensifying raids by regime warplanes in particular, according to the Observatory.

It has also been rocked by infighting between rebel and jihadist factions, including Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, Fateh al-Sham Front.