This Monday, Dec. 23, 2019, file photo, civilians ride in a truck as they flee Maaret al-Numan, Syria, ahead of a regime offensive. (AP)

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The Strategic Significance of Syria’s M5 Highway

It is arguably one of the most coveted prizes in Syria’s war, and after eight years of fighting, Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad has got it back.

The Damascus-Aleppo highway, or the M5, is known to Syrians simply as the “International Road.” Cutting through all of Syria's major cities, the motorway is key to who controls the country.

Assad gradually lost control over the motorway from 2012, when various opposition groups fighting to topple him began seizing parts of the country.

Protests against his family's rule had erupted the year before amid a wave of uprisings in the Arab world. This soon turned into a war, following a brutal regime crackdown on dissent and the intervention of foreign powers in the growing conflict.

Historically a bustling trade route, one Syrian analyst, Taleb Ibrahim, called the M5 “the most basic and strategic highway in the Middle East.”

For the Turkey-backed opposition fighting Assad, the motorway was a cornerstone in holding together their territory and keeping regime forces at bay. Its loss marks a heavy blow for opposition fighters whose hold on their last patches of ground in northwestern Syria is looking more and more precarious.

The Associated Press takes a look at the M5, and its place in Syria's nearly nine-year-long conflict:

What is it?

The M5 is a strategic highway that starts in southern Syria, near the border with Jordan, and runs all the way north to the city of Aleppo near the Turkish border.

The 450-kilometer (280-mile) highway links the country's four largest cities and population centers: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cutting through Idlib province.

Before the war, the M5 motorway served as an economic artery for Syria — mainly feeding the country's industrial hub of Aleppo. Experts estimate the road carried business worth $25 million a day at the height of Syria's trade boom before the war.

The highway was a passageway for the crossing of wheat and cotton from the Syrian east and north to the rest of the country. It was also a road used for the exchange of commodities with regional trade partners like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, as well as Turkey.

Recovering control

Regaining control over the highway has been a top priority of the regime since the early days of the war.

Its slow and tortuous recovery, in many ways, traces the arc of the Syrian war, which has killed nearly half a million people and uprooted half the country's pre-war population.

The regime began winning back segments of the highway, starting in 2014. That's when Russia joined the war on the side of Assad, and essentially tipped it in his favor.

Towns and cities located along parts of the highway, including in the Ghouta region and in the suburbs of Damascus, now lie in ruins after long sieges and incessant bombardment forced them into submission. The Russian-backed recapture of Aleppo in December 2016 was another major game-changer.

End of the opposition’s' road

Under a September 2018 agreement between Russia and Turkey, the M5 and M4 highways were supposed to be open for traffic, linking the regime’s stronghold on the coast with Aleppo before the end of that year. That never happened, as the opposition refused to move away and allow joint Russian-Turkish patrols to protect the traffic there.

That eventually led to the latest regime offensive in Idlib, the last opposition-held bastion in the country.

Regime troops backed by Russia carried out several major advances in Idlib, retaking towns and villages on both sides of the motorway. The capture of Khan Sheikhoun was the first major breakthrough, followed by Maaret al-Numan and Saraqeb, located on the intersection between the M4 and M5.

This week, regime troops recaptured the last opposition-controlled section of the highway around Khan al-Assal. That brought the road under the full control of Assad’s forces for the first time since 2012.

Ibrahim, the political analyst, said the highway is so vital because it links the country's two powerhouses — the capital of Damascus with the trading hub of Aleppo.

“In other words it links Syria’s political capital with its economic capital,” he said. It also links up with the M4 highway at the Saraqeb knot, opening up traffic to the regime’s coastal stronghold of Latakia and the port.

Fighting continues in areas near the highway, and much of Idlib province remains in opposition hands.