Rebel-held Idlib reels from Syria regime offensive

Syria: Regime's escalation in Idlib triggers new humanitarian crisis
6 min read
16 June, 2021
The Syrian regime is carrying out widespread bombardment on the rebel-held Idlib district as it seeks to wrest control from opposition factions, massive civilian displacement and a worsening of the already severe humanitarian crisis.
Abrar Refugee Camp after it was hit by Assad Regime's artillery at Taoum district in Idlib, Syria on June 9, 2021 [NurPhoto via Getty Images]

This week saw the Syrian regime forces continue their rocket and artillery bombardment of the towns and villages of Idlib governorate. Local sources told The New Arab’s sister Arabic-language publication, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that Syrian regime forces were targeting the Jabal Al-Zawiya region in the rural southern area of Idlib, specifically Marayan and Maghara, which lege one woman and two children wounded. Damage to infrastructure was also reported following the bombing of Al-Najia village in the west of the region as well as the outskirts of Maghara ‘Alia, a village in the rural eastern part of the governorate.

In response, opposition factions bombed regime forces positioned in the hills of Al-Kabina in the Jabal al-Akrad (Kurds’ Mountain) area in the northern Latakian countryside.

Idlib governorate and its surroundings were supposed to be the fourth of the de-escalation zones specified in the Astana agreements and had seen relative stability since March 2020, after the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement regarding northwest Syria. However, it is evident that Russia is now attempting to help the regime gain control of opposition-held areas in the region, claiming it is combatting extremist organisations in the area as a pretext.

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Signs of a renewed humanitarian crisis in the northwest region have accompanied the recent military escalation which has led to widespread displacement; expected to rise if the assault continues. Mustafa Al-Mohammed, a Syrian activist explained that around 400 families have fled their homes in Jabal Al-Zawiya for safer, neighbouring areas. He pointed out that many of these were formerly displaced families who had returned to the area following the ceasefire in March 2020 but now they had been forced to flee again, adding that these families had been suffering extremely difficult living conditions before this. 

Muhammed Hallaj, director of the Syria Response Coordinators Team in northwest Syria, said that up to 1,867 civilians have been forced to leave their homes in Jabal Al-Zawiya – some heading for refugee camps on the Syria-Turkey border and others choosing to flee to neighbouring villages so that it will be easier to come home if and when the current escalation ends.  Any military escalation which allows regime forces to advance "will result in a huge wave of displaced people”, he said, warning that this would cause a humanitarian catastrophe because civilians would have nowhere to flee. Hallaj called on the international community to do all that was necessary in order to prevent Russia and the regime from carrying out acts of aggression and perpetrating massacres in the northern Syria regions.

Jabal Al-Zawiya area contains around 35 villages, the most prominent of which are: Al-Bara, Ihsim, Kafrouaid, Balyon, Mashoun, Kansafra, Banin, Deir Sunbul, Juzif and Sarja. It appears that the regime’s goal will be to take control of this area in the event that a land invasion is launched. The town of Ariha also lies in Idlib district, 15 km southwest of Idlib city. It is considered to be a major goal of the regime due to its vital position at the foot of Mount Arba’in where it overlooks the wide plains of Idlib and Hama governorates.

Hallaj called on the international community to do all that was necessary in order to prevent Russia and the regime from carrying out acts of aggression and perpetrating massacres in the northern Syria regions.

Alexander Yevimov, Russian ambassador to Syria, claimed in an interview published on Sunday by Al-Watan newspaper (Syrian government affiliated), that some aspects of the Russian-Turkish agreement regarding Idlib had taken longer to implement than the countries had hoped. Yevimov reiterated Moscow’s demand that northwest Syria be returned to regime control saying: “We remain certain that whatever results from the agreements will not cancel out the necessity of countering terrorism relentlessly, or of returning this land to the sovereignty of the legitimate government as soon as possible”. Moscow uses the term 'terrorism' to refer to all Syrian rebel groups regardless of their ideology.

Ongoing negotiations

Around 4 million civilians currently reside in northwest Syria, most of whom are displaced. They are awaiting the outcome of discussions between the active parties in Syria, primarily Turkey, Russia and the United States. It is expected that these discussions will reflect the results of the summit held on Wednesday in Geneva at which US President Joe Biden were expected  to discuss the situation in Syria with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.   

All indicators suggest the northwest region is on the brink of massive military escalation unless Moscow and Washington can reach an understanding on an array of Syrian issues. At the forefront of these is an extension on the international mechanism which currently ensures the passage of aid into northwest Syria which is due to expire soon. It is clear that Russia is planning to wield its veto power in the Security Council to condition the renewed passing of the mechanism on securing political and economic gains for the Syrian regime. America on the other hand is insisting that aid continue to be allowed through the Bab Al-Hawa crossing on the border between Turkey and northwest Syria, which is controlled by opposition factions.

Colonel Fateh Hassoun, leader of the opposition factions said that the current escalation is a message to everyone from the Russians but most of all to Turkey and America that Russia is the undisputed decision maker when it comes to ensuring calm in Syria, and that is impossible to force an opening of the crossings in liberated North Syria except with its agreement.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar had stressed NATO’s importance to his American counterpart Lloyd Austin a few days ago, and the necessity of strengthening it; a move which had raised tensions with Russia. Turkey had also started to amass its forces in strategic points to counter any land invasion Russia might try to undertake via its allies – the Assad regime and the Iranian militias.

"Washington can play a role in stabilising the situation in Idlib," Hassoun continued.

"Turkey for its part considers Idlib important to its own national security. Turkey’s defence minister once again raising the idea of securing a safe area there is an attempt to get NATO to play an active role in all of northern Syria”.

Hassoun clarified that there were no signs yet that a land assault on Idlib was being prepared adding: “usually what we see is Russian attempts to raise tensions and clamouring to get its way”.  

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original click here.