MESOP FLASH : Idlib ‘on the verge of a catastrophe’ as regime severs vital supply route, and with it, cuts off fuel access

AMMAN: 4 Fb 2016 – Syria Direct – Regime forces reportedly broke through the nearly four-year rebel siege on Nubl and Zahraa in northwestern Aleppo province Wednesday, effectively severing Idlib’s oil supply and portending a humanitarian “catastrophe” in the rebel-held province.Late Wednesday, regime ground forces supported by heavy Russian air cover reached the encircled, Shiite-majority towns, reported pro-regime media. “Army units operating in the north Aleppo countryside, in collaboration with National Defense Forces, broke the siege on the towns of Nubl and Zahraa by terrorist groups,” reported state media agency SANA on Wednesday.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm whether regime forces had made it through rebel lines to the two towns, pro-regime islands besieged for almost four years by Victory Army rebels.

The potential breakthrough follows a series of lightning regime advances since Sunday to link up its forces north of Aleppo city with Nubl and Zahraa, located approximately 20km northwest of the provincial capital, and ultimately cut off Victory Army rebels in Idlib from rebel positions in the northern Aleppo countryside.

Moving from the east toward Nubl and Zahraa, regime forces earlier this week grabbed a series of three villages a few kilometers east of the besieged towns. The three villages lie in a rebel-held sliver of elevated land stretching approximately a dozen kilometers wide.

Now, from this newly captured high ground, regime troops can fire on “anything that moves” within this corridor, namely, merchants moving fuel and food back and forth as agreed upon by Idlib rebels and the Islamic State.

The informal trade route runs from Islamic State territory northeast of Aleppo city into rebel-held areas in western Aleppo and Idlib. In June, Victory Army rebels in the northern Aleppo countryside reached an agreement with IS to “keep the road open” for merchants travelling between rebel-held and Islamic State territory, according to a statement by the Victory Army in Aleppo.

The Victory Army benefits from the arrangement by maintaining an ongoing source of fuel for Syrians living in areas under its control, while IS receives food supplies.

If fuel stops flowing to Idlib the regime will have accomplished one of its long-term goals in northern Syria according to Rida al-Basha, a correspondent with pro-regime al-Mayadeen news, who offered Syria Direct his take on the regime’s strategy in January.

“Idlib is now a priority for the Syrian army…separating Idlib and isolating it totally, then liberating it.”