Regime forces briefly captured Kafr Naboudah, but rebels have since taken back the town. Residents, however, are holding back from returning amid continued air strikes by Assad forces.
On May 22, almost two months after the regime’s Idlib offensive kicked off, the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) announced the recapture of territory from the Syrian regime, including the strategic town of Kafr Naboudah.
Syrian rebels have been losing territory since the regime campaign intensified in late April, largely due to intense bombardment by Assad war planes backed by Russia.
Opposition fighters have since managed to strike back with a counteroffensive.
The regime has been focusing on using its airpower on civilian populated areas in its attempts to capture territory.
An overnight bombing of the town Maarat al Nouman in Idlib on Wednesday killed 18 civilians and injured 66, monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said. Since April 30, at least 670 people have been killed in the escalation, including 210 civilians.
Media activist Mohamed Alshekh, told TRT World that the recapture of Kafr Naboudah was a source of joy for the thousands who fled the town, including him.
"The first time my town was completely destroyed was in 2012,” Alshekh said, referring to the Syrian regime’s offensive in Hama, a year after the Syrian war began.
Rebels eventually managed to take and keep control of the town, even after the regime captured half of it in 2015, when Russia entered the war.
“People have been trying to rebuild the town, but it was destroyed again on the 29th [of April], when the regime attacked it again,” he said.
On May 8, the Syrian regime was able to recapture the town completely thanks to the bombing campaign.
“We were obliged to retreat on account of the intense aerial bombing by the regime,” Naji al Mustafa, the Turkish-backed NLF's spokesperson, told TRT World, calling the regime’s attacks on civilians an “earth-scorched policy”.
“We managed to retake some areas...The military operation is still underway and we have other targets,” he said.
According to reports, moderate rebel groups like the NLF and the Turkey-trained National Army, as well as Hayat Tahrir Sham (HTS), were among those groups involved in the offensive.
However, Mustafa said: “The HTS is just a pretext for the regime to exterminate the area and then to capture it.
“They always create accusations to justify their crimes, we are accustomed to their lies. They (the regime and Russia) committed heinous crimes in Aleppo, they also used chemical weapons in different places, especially in Ghouta and Khan Shaikhoun in Idlib.”
‘Determined to return’
When the most recent assault by Assad forces began in April, Alshekh fled to the surrounding areas of Hama, like thousands of others left homeless by the assault.
When he heard that rebels had managed to recapture the town on May 22, he again promised to return to his home, even if it had turned to rubble.
“I’m determined to return, despite the devastation,” he told TRT World. “We’re ready to live in rubble and start over.”
But for the time being, the plans for return are on hold, as airstrikes continue to bombard the area.
Since the start of the April offensive by the Assad regime, at least 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.
The assault on Idlib and parts of Hama came despite the areas being part of de-escalation zones agreed upon by Turkey and Russia in 2017.
The areas were meant to provide a safe zones where civilians could live in safety, but the Syrian regime has not adhered to the agreement.
The latest aerial campaign has killed more than 300 civilians since it began. If attacks continue, it could lead to a massive humanitarian crisis at Syria’s border with Turkey.
On the day the regime captured Kafr Naboudah, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Moscow to meet with his counterpart President Vladimir Putin to discuss the issue, particularly the situation Idlib.
But for the time being, despite Turkish attempts to stop the fighting, the regime bombardment continues.