Syrian rebel fighters fire at government forces from positions in Idlib province
Maaret al-Naasane (Syria) (AFP) - Syrian regime forces made new gains Sunday in their offensive against the last major rebel bastion in the northwest, seizing villages and towns around second city Aleppo, state media and a monitor said.
Backed by Russian air strikes, government forces have kept up the assault on the Idlib region and areas of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces since December.
On Sunday, after clashes and air strikes, regime forces "were in control of all the villages and small towns around Aleppo for the first time since 2012," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The move enabled forces of President Bashar al-Assad to push back jihadists and allied rebels from the vicinity of Aleppo and "secure the city", it added.
The Britain-based war monitor said around 30 villages and small towns were captured by Syrian government forces who "advanced rapidly in the north and west of Aleppo province after insurgents pulled back".
Syrian state television confirmed the report and said army units "have liberated all the villages and small towns west of Aleppo city".
It broadcast footage purporting to show Aleppo residents celebrating the army's advance.
An AFP correspondent near the village of Maaret al-Naasan in Idlib province saw rebels manning a tank in an olive grove and shelling positions of Syrian troops the western part of Aleppo province.
- Chipping away -
Regime forces have for weeks been making gains in northwestern Syria and chipping away at territory held by jihadists and allied rebels, focusing their latest operations on the west of Aleppo province.
The Observatory said the drive aims to establish a "security belt" around Aleppo, which government forces fully retook from insurgents in 2016 but which is still targeted by rocket fire.
Last week regime forces seized control of the strategic M5 highway, which connects the capital Damascus to the former economic hub of Aleppo and is economically vital for the government.
On Friday they captured a key base lost to the rebels in 2012 just west of Aleppo.
The Russian-backed offensive has triggered the largest wave of displacement in Syria's civil war, with 800,000 people fleeing since December, the United Nations says.
During the same period more than 380 civilians have been killed, according to the Observatory.
Backed by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, Assad's forces now control more than 70 percent of Syria and the president has repeatedly vowed to retake the entire country.
On Sunday, Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani was in Damascus where he held talks with Assad who, according to the presidency, insisted on the people's "determination" to "liberate all of Syria".
More than 380,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict broke out nearly nine years ago with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.