BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian government troops are pushing into a strategic town in the country’s last rebel-held region, local witnesses and monitors said Tuesday, another milestone in a military campaign that has trapped about three million civilians in the area.
After Russian warplanes pounded it for hours overnight, Syrian government troops and allied militias appeared close to seizing the town, Khan Sheikhoun, which lies on an important transportation route in western Syria. Government control of the town would tighten the siege on Idlib Province, which government forces have been assaulting since April.
Rebels retreated to the town’s outskirts on Tuesday, though clashes continued. The main rebel group among the local fighters, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, portrayed the withdrawal as a “redeployment” and vowed to continue defending the town.
A fighter with the group, reached on WhatsApp, said the government had captured western and northern quarters of the town while rebels held the east and south.
Idlib Province, which borders Turkey in northwestern Syria, is largely controlled by jihadist rebels, like those from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. But it is packed with some three million civilians from all over Syria, many of whom were bused there after refusing to reconcile with the government when it retook the areas where they lived before.
Now, with their last refuge in Syria under threat, it is unclear what will happen to them or where they can go.
The United Nations said last week that more than 500 civilians have been killed in the Idlib offensive, and that more than 400,000 people have fled their homes. It has opened an investigation into pro-government airstrikes that have struck health-care facilities and ambulances at least 42 times, though the United Nations had conveyed the facilities’ locations to the Syrian government and its ally Russia in the hope of shielding them.
The rebels have also shelled government-held areas, killing civilians and forcing more than 10,000 to flee, the United Nations has said. A cease-fire in early August lasted just three days.
Civilians and opposition activists interviewed in Idlib in recent weeks said that many people were sheltering in open fields or under trees, often without access to toilets. Turkey, which already hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has backed the rebels in the past, but is not allowing displaced people to enter.
“The regime and Russia are not only using weapons and destruction, they are waging a psychological war against civilians,” Raed al-Saleh, leader of the White Helmets, a volunteer civil defense and rescue group that has lost eight members to the recent bombings, said in a statement on Monday. “They want to destroy all aspects of daily life so they break civilians’ resistance.”
Khan Sheikhoun sits by a highway running through western Syria that the government wants to control to open up trade and ease transportation. Seizing the highway would, in turn, make it more difficult for the rebels to maneuver.
The town was the site of a chemical attack in 2017 that prompted President Trump to order airstrikes on a Syrian government airfield.
The government advance there came a day after a Turkish military convoy moving through the area was hit by an airstrike. The Turkish Defense Ministry said Monday that the strike did not kill any of its forces but did kill three civilians and wound 12 more.
Idlib Province is strategically important to Turkey, which maintains several observation posts there and controls a swath of northern Syria. Until the government offensive began in April, an uneasy calm had prevailed under an agreement between Turkey and Russia.
Turkey has mostly sat back while government troops moved on Idlib, but the Defense Ministry said in a statement that it had deployed forces into Idlib to protect its observation points and a supply route.
Turkey did not say whether the airstrike was carried out by a Syrian or a Russian plane. Still, it lashed out at Russia for failing to stop the attack even though the Turkish military had warned the Russian command about the convoy’s movements.
“We strongly condemn this attack which contradicts the existing agreements, cooperation and dialogue with the Russian Federation,” the Turkish statement said. “We expect the necessary measures to be taken to prevent recurrence of such incidents.”
The Syrian government said the Turkish convoy was delivering weapons and ammunition to the rebels in Khan Sheikhoun, according to the official Syrian news agency, Sana. If so, it may signal that Turkey is taking a more active role in keeping Syrian government forces at bay.
The government characterizes the Idlib rebels as “terrorists,” and the Sana report echoed that charge on Tuesday, accusing Turkey of providing “all forms of military and logistic support to the terrorist organizations.”