Following Syria’s victory in Eastern Ghouta, a senior Iranian official has expressed hope for the Arab nation’s army to liberate Idlib Province, now a major militant bastion, and cleanse the country’s eastern regions of “occupying” US troops.
Speaking at a press conference in Damascus on Thursday, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior aid to Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, underlined the strategic significance of Idlib and said he hoped the northwestern province would be “liberated soon.”
“East of the Euphrates is also a very important area. We hope big steps would be taken in order to liberate this area and expel the occupying Americans,” Velayati added.
The Iranian official made the comments following a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which took place shortly after Russia announced the liberation of the Eastern Ghouta suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Eastern Ghouta was once a major militant stronghold and a launch pad for deadly terror attacks against residents and civilian infrastructure in Damascus.
Both Tehran and Moscow are giving Damascus a helping hand in its countrywide counter-terrorism battles. Iran has been offering military advisory assistance to the national Syrian army, while the Russian air force is providing air cover to its ground operations.
Idlib, the birthplace of militancy
The foreign-backed crisis in Syria first broke out in Idlib in 2011. The province has seen been the focal point of the militant campaign against the Damascus government.
Syrian government forces retook Idlib a year later, but it fell back into the hands of militants in 2015, when a coalition of Takfiri terrorists, including then al-Qaeda offshoot, al-Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham, launched an offensive in the province, seized Idlib City and laid a siege to the Shia-majority villages of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya.
Currently, the dominant militant force in Idlib is the so-called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which was formed after Nusra Front rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and swallowed smaller militant groups there.
As the Syrian army stepped up its anti-terror operations and gained major victories across the country, militants and their families began to pour into Idlib under ceasefire deals with the government.
Many of the militants came from Aleppo late last year, others from Homs and more recently from Eastern Ghouta after reaching evacuation deals with the Damascus government in the aftermath of their losses on the battlefield.
The Syrian government has over the past few years dealt heavy blows to Idlib-based militants in its sporadic military operations, but a concentrated liberation push is yet to come.