BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian insurgents carried out at least three car bomb attacks against government forces west of Aleppo on Saturday and opened a new front northeast of the city, an attempted fight back after territorial advances by Damascus.
Backed by Russian air power, Syrian government forces made a significant advance into the rebel-held northwest this week, seizing the town of Maarat al-Numan, part of an offensive to secure the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo.
The northwest, including Idlib province and adjoining areas of Aleppo province, is the last major rebel foothold in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has taken back most of the ground once held by his enemies with Russian and Iranian support.
Aleppo city has been under full Syrian government control since 2016, when pro-Damascus forces defeated rebels in the east of the city.
Suicide bombers with the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group set off car bombs near Aleppo’s Jamiyat al-Zahraa area while a third was set off by remote control, a source with the group said. The attacks targeted the “Iranian occupation”, the source said, a reference to Iran-backed forces that support Damascus.
Syrian state news agency SANA said army troops had destroyed four car bombs before they reached their targets in that area. Militant groups had also fired rockets at residential districts of the city, it said.
Some 50 km (35 miles) northeast of Aleppo, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels attacked government-held positions near the city of al-Bab, a rebel source and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. SANA made no mention of an attack in that area.
Turkish forces were not taking part, rebel sources said.
The government’s latest offensive in the northwest has triggered a fresh wave of civilian displacements, with hundreds of thousands moving toward the Turkish border.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday Turkey may launch a military operation in Idlib unless the fighting there is halted.
U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey said on Thursday the Idlib fighting raised the specter of an international crisis.
Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria, fears a fresh wave of migrants from Idlib. It has 12 military observation posts around Idlib, set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, and several of them have since been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces.
Reporting by Khalil Ashawi and Tom Perry; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie