BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces pushed deeper in their offensive on the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country's northwest on Sunday, getting very close to a Turkish observation post in the area, opposition activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition's Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, reported shelling and airstrikes on rebel-held villages in Idlib on Sunday, saying that at least one civilian was killed.
The province of Idlib has been at the center of a Syrian forces' push under the cover of airstrikes in recent weeks, with more than a dozen villages captured.
The offensive has already forced tens of thousands of civilians to abandon their homes and flee, including thousands who crossed into neighboring Turkey seeking safety. The attacks resumed after a cease-fire in force since the end of August collapsed recently. Turkey has backed Syrian rebels in the neighboring country's civil war, now in its ninth year.
Saraqeb and Maaret al-Numan are two major rebel-held towns on the highway linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest. The two towns have been emptied of civilians since becoming the target of the offensive, which aims to reopen the highway, closed since 2012.
Syrian troops, advancing from the east toward Maaret al-Numan, neared the Turkish observation post outside the village of Surman from three sides, according to the Observatory. The Step news agency, an activist collective, said the government troops were now about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Turkish post.
Syrian state media made no mention of the post but said government forces captured several villages near Maaret al-Numan.
Four months ago, Syrian troops captured all territory around another Turkish post in the village of Morek, also in Idlib province, leaving the Turkish monitors only a nearby road to use. No friction has since been reported between Syrian and Turkish troops in Morek.
Relations between Turkey and Syria have deteriorated sharply since Syria's crisis began in 2011, with Damascus accusing Ankara of undermining its security by allowing thousands of foreign fighters to come in across the border to battle Syrian government forces.
Turkey is a strong backer of rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces and has 12 observation posts in northwestern Syria as part of an agreement reached last year with Russia, a main backer of Assad's government.
Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants, is home to 3 million civilians and the U.N. has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border.
Also Sunday in Idlib province, a drone attack killed a senior commander with al-Qaida-linked Horas al-Din group, which is Arabic for “Guardians of Religion,” according to the Observatory and other activist groups, as well as jihadi outlets.
The Sham Network activist collective identified the man as Jordanian citizen Bilal Khuraisat, also known as Abu Khadija al-Urduni, and said his car was struck near the northwestern village of Termanin.
Khuraisat was a harsh critic of both the U.S. and the rival Islamic State group and its late leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Rami Abdurrahman, the Observatory's chief, described him as “a very dangerous man among al-Qaida." No one claimed responsibility for the attack but the U.S. has in the past targeted the militant group's members in Idlib.
In July, the U.S. military said it struck an al-Qaida leadership and training facility in northern Syria where attacks threatening Americans and others were being planned. The U.S. Central Command said in a statement at the time that the strike occurred near the northern province of Aleppo.