Russia-backed regime troops are aiming to reach the Abu Duhur air base south of Aleppo as part of a weeks-long assault against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

People rush to the site of an airstrike on the Syrian city of Saraqib, southwest of Aleppo, on January 10, 2018.
People rush to the site of an airstrike on the Syrian city of Saraqib, southwest of Aleppo, on January 10, 2018. (AFP)

Syrian regime forces have recaptured dozens of towns and villages from militants, a monitor said Sunday, bringing them closer to a key military airport in the country's northwest.  

"In the past 24 hours, regime forces have taken at least 79 villages in the southern parts of Aleppo province, an area near the Abu Duhur military airport," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

Russia-backed regime troops are aiming to reach the Abu Duhur base as part of a weeks-long assault against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants fire missiles from a village near al-Tamanah during ongoing battles with regime forces in Syria's Idlib province on January 11, 2018.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants fire missiles from a village near al-Tamanah during ongoing battles with regime forces in Syria's Idlib province on January 11, 2018. (AFP)

The HTS is a coalition of factions dominated by the Fateh al Sham Front, or the former Nusra Front, a militant group that rebranded itself after publicly shedding its status as Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate in 2016.

The US maintains that the groups are still linked to Al Qaeda.

The offensive has seen Syrian forces seize surrounding territory in the provinces of Aleppo and Hama as they close in on Abu Duhur, which lies just inside the Idlib province.

They briefly broke into the air base this week from the south but were ousted in a ferocious counter-offensive by militants and rebels.

With the latest push in Aleppo province, Abdel Rahman said, regime troops were seeking to open a new front on the airport's northern and eastern flanks.

"Regime troops lost control of those villages in southern Aleppo province in 2012," he said.

"They are advancing quickly now because of HTS's collapse, and the withdrawal of its fighters and those of other groups from the area," Abdel Rahman added. 

Syrian daily Al Watan, which is close to the regime, also reported that the army was "encircling" the airport.

The airport straddles the border between Aleppo and Idlib, the last province in the country outside the regime's control.

In addition to the base, the regime hopes to secure a key patch of highway running through Idlib that links the northern city of Aleppo with the capital Damascus further south.

Rebels and militants overran Idlib province over the course of several months in 2015, capturing Abu Duhur in September of that year.

Since then, the militant forces behind HTS have expanded their control in the province, with the influence of mainstream rebels shrinking drastically.

The fighting in Idlib has displaced nearly 100,000 people since early December, the United Nations has said. 

The civil war in Syria began in 2011 after Bashar al Assad launched a crackdown on anti-regime protesters.

The conflict has so far claimed over 400,000 lives and displaced millions of people, creating the world's one of the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history.

Source: AFP