After the newly restarted Syrian army offensive made its way into the first buildings in the town of Khan Shaykhoun, but also enveloped it from the north and cut the key M5 highway above it, there was a flurry of reports from normally anti-government sources that rebels had evacuated all the settlements to the south of the M5 breach.
The reports were then denied by HTS (al-Qaeda) introducing yet more uncertainty as to what exactly had happened. (Possibly most of the other rebels withdrew but some al-Qaeda stayed behind).
It seems the reports were at the very least partly true though, as the Syrian army has since been able to secure Khan Shaykhoun quickly, with only light fighting in the town itself, possibly against what was merely a left-behind rear guard.
Oleg Blohin, the Russian reporter for Anna News in the town:
❗️Олег Блохин ★ Опубликовал видео поездки по улицам ОСВОБОЖДЁННОГО Хан-Шейхуна (ВИДЕО) ⇢ pic.twitter.com/rK7OvaZ11F
— PoliteMaps (@PoliteMaps) August 22, 2019
Furthermore, while Khan Shaykhoun was first reached and taken from the west, Syrian army units from the east of the North Hama salient have also since advanced to the town, meaning the salient has been turned into a pocket and cut off from the main rebel territory in the north.
NEW MAP: #SAA took control of #KhanSheikoun and isolated the towns of #Morek, #KafarZita and #Latamina. Losing these heavily fortified towns (and now besieged forces) is a heavy blow to the militants operating in #Idlib. #Syria.
— Peto Lucem (@PetoLucem) August 21, 2019
Khan Shaykhoun had the pre-war population of 35,000 and was one of the five largest remining towns in rebel hands. The pocket that has now been formed includes the towns of Morek, Latamina and Kafr Zayta each home to around 15,000 people before the war.
It remains to be seen how many rebels, if any, have stayed behind, to defend the rebel control of these towns but either way there is now no doubt they will be defeated. Combined with the gain of Khan Shaykhoun the collapse of the North Hama salient/cauldron will mean that the Syrian army in a swiftly fashion restored control of territory home to over 100,000 people.
Still left in the cauldron is also Turkey’s southermost military post in Syria, near the town of Morek, part of Erdogan’s effort to try and protect the Islamist rebels from the government.
Indeed the position of the Turkish military base on the M5 highway mean the Syrians had to find another way to Khan Shaykhoun, but that turned out to Syrian army’s advantage.
Turkey is left looking particularly embarrassed here with its Monday pouring in of reinforcements into Idlib to try and shore up the rebels, only to have them abandon the battlefield at Khan Shaykhoun just the same.
Turkish troops in Morek will now need Russian and Syrian government help to safely evacuate the pocket and how this is handled will set a precedent for how all such evacuations after Syrian government gains are handled.
Gains since the very start of the offensive:
Smoke is haram ???? pic.twitter.com/5BnQqJ1wiW
— maytham (@maytham956) August 20, 2019