ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — A Syrian commercial flight landed at Aleppo airport Wednesday from Damascus, the resumption of internal flights between Syria’s two largest cities for the first time since 2012.
The flight carrying Syrian officials and reporters was a symbolic message from President Bashar Assad’s government, days after its forces consolidated control over the northwestern province of Aleppo and seized the last segments of the strategic M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus. The road between Syria’s two biggest cities was being repaired and was scheduled to reopen in coming days, for the first time in eight years.
Backed by heavy Russian airstrikes, government forces have been on the offensive for weeks to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province in northwestern Syria, the last rebel-held areas in the country.
The advances have sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing toward the border with Turkey in one of the biggest single displacements of the war, in its eighth year. Escaping the bombs, many of them left with their belongings piled up on vehicles and are staying in tents, in fields and under trees in freezing temperatures near the Turkish border. The U.N. has put the number of those displaced since Dec. 1 at more than 900,000 civilians — more than half of them women and children.
The military campaign has killed hundreds of civilians and disrupted aid distribution, with the bitter winter compounding the suffering.
The Syrian Air flight landed at Aleppo airport after a 40-minute flight from Damascus and was received on the ground by a military band on the tarmac. Syrian warplanes flew low overhead in a show of force and celebration. Earlier in the day, Syrian Tourism Minister Rami Radwan Martini and Transport Minister Ali Hammoud opened the airport for business.
Hammoud called the opening of the airport a “great joy” for Syrians and a “dream” for the ministry.
The airport has been closed since 2012 due to fighting, after Aleppo fell into rebel hands. Backed by Russia and Iran, the Syrian army drove the rebels from Aleppo in December 2016, after a crushing years-long siege and bombardment campaign. The airport opened briefly in 2017 to much fanfare but was closed again due to security concerns.
The government’s offensive in Idlib has strained ties between Ankara and Moscow, which support opposing sides of the Syrian war but for the past few years have been coordinating their moves in Idlib province.
A truce reached between the two countries collapsed in late 2019, leading to the current Russian-backed offensive. President Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area last year opened the door to Russia.
Turkey arms and trains the Syrian opposition and has sent thousands of troops and military reinforcements to Idlib in recent weeks in an effort to stem the Syrian government’s advances. That has led to clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops with fatalities on both sides.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that time was running out for Syrian government forces to retreat from Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and warned of an “imminent” Turkish intervention to force the retreat.
Erdogan spoke a day after a top Turkish official said talks between Russian and Turkish delegation meant to reduce tensions in Idlib did not yield a “satisfactory result” for Ankara. The official said however, that the sides agreed to continue talks.
Turkey is pressing Russia to force the Syrian government to retreat to positions they held before the advance in Idlib and Aleppo.
“We are delivering our final warnings. We have not reached the desired results as yet.” Erdogan said, addressing legislators from his ruling party in Parliament. “The operation in Idlib is a matter of time. We could enter (Idlib) suddenly one night.”