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Syrian rally in Idlib late on Dec 12 2016 (Photo/Omar Haj Kadour/AFP)

BEIRUT – Idlib in north-western Syria was the second provincial capital to slip from the grasp of Bashar al-Assad’s government in the country’s more than five-year civil war. The city and its eponymous province has been taking in rebels and their families evacuated from Aleppo. Near the road linking Aleppo and Damascus, Idlib was home to nearly 120,000 people before the war began in 2011. Part of the population fled after rebels took it in Mar 2015, but about 100,000 displaced people joined it, according to the UN. Today it has some 200,000 inhabitants. Idlib province is strategically important, lying close to the border with Turkey and the coastal province of Latakia. On Mar 28 2015, Jaish al-Fatah, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, seized the city, the second regional capital to fall after Raqqa, which became a Daesh stronghold. On Apr 25, the coalition captured Jisr al-Shughur, one of the government’s last outposts in the province. A neighbour of Aleppo, Idlib province is also home to a large pool of rebel fighters, notably those who have recently arrived from areas which have fallen under regime control. A security source in Damascus said:

As early as Dec 2015, Russian and Syrian forces have been holding joint training exercises in Latakia province to prepare for fighting in Idlib. In the next stage, Idlib will become the major destination and most important target of joint Russian-Syrian military operations.

On Thursday, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura warned:

Idlib is now at risk of a similar escalation of violence as Aleppo. If there is no political agreement and a ceasefire, Idlib will become the next Aleppo.

These are two Shi’ite towns in Idlib province that have remained loyal to Assad and are besieged by Jihadis, who have tried to use the two towns as bargaining chips in talks on Zabadani and Madaya, two predominantly Sunni towns surrounded by regime forces in Damascus province. In Dec 2015, several hundred people were evacuated from pro-government towns and from Zabadani. The evacuation from Aleppo on Friday was halted amid reports that Iran sought to add an evacuation of civilians from Fuaa and Kafraya to the terms of the Aleppo deal.

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