Syria Weekly: A war on civilians in Idlib

Syria Weekly: How Russia and Assad declared war on civilians
7 min read
07 June, 2019
The death toll continues to rise in Idlib, as Russia's targeting of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure is put under the spotlight.
Russia and the regime have targeted civilian infrastructure in Idlib [Getty]
The number of Syrians killed and injured in the Syrian regime and Russia's month-long bombardment of Idlib and northern Hama has now exceeded a thousand, with strikes on opposition areas continuing this week, as the death toll rises.

The White Helmets told The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site that 272 people, including 67 children, have been killed in airstrikes, shelling and barrel bombing over the past four weeks, with homes, hospitals and civil defence centres wiped away along with human lives.

At least 785 people were injured in the campaign, including around 200 children, adding further strains on councils and hospitals in the densely-populated opposition areas of northwest Syria.

War on civilians

The damage to civilian infrastructure during the air campaign has been well documented, with at least 22 hospitals destroyed and six White Helmets centres targeted.

Syria analysts have been split on the motives of the recent bombardment, with some commentators stating military or political objectives to the assault. These include capturing motorways in Idlib, the provincial capital and other strategic urban areas, or clearing the demilitarised zone of "extremist fighters".
272 people, including 67 children, have been killed in airstrikes, shelling and barrel bombing, over the past four weeks
A widely held view by activists and analysts alike is that the offensive is part of Russia and the regime's sustained strategy of destroying infrastructure and homes in opposition areas to make these territories unliveable with the exodus of civilians out of southern Idlib and Hama testament to this fact.

With rebel fighters and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) managing to hold off the offensive so far, the military objectives of the more recent assault have evidently failed.

Analysts believe that the relatively low numbers of regime-affiliated troops used in the recent assault and the low-quality of their fighting prowess never really made strategic aims a serious concern for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Instead, the assault reflects the continued Russian and regime objective of devastating opposition areas, sparking a new wave of refugees from Idlib, or putting pressure on civilian populations to pull their support of the armed opposition.
The assault reflects the continued Russian and regime objective of devastating opposition areas, sparking a new wave of refugees from Idlib, or putting pressure on civilian populations to pull their support of the armed opposition
The former appears to be true with around 300,000 civilians pushed towards the Turkish border according to Syrian NGOs this week, but the rebels still appear to have the widespread backing of locals and activists in the current battle.

Due in part to manpower, material and financial constraints, analysts have told The New Arab that Assad's military goals throughout the war have been mostly concerned with defeating the moderate opposition while allowing extremist groups in the war - such as the Islamic State group or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham - to flourish, or at least let the US-led coalition and others deal with them.

The Free Syrian Army-affiliated Jaish al-Izzah has played a key role in the rebel defences in northern Hama over the past month, and its fighters have been successful in rolling back some of the regime's early advances. Russia has in return pummelled the opposition frontlines to help pave way for regime advances, while rebel counter-offensives have been dealt with ferocious targeting from the air.

"The areas are being targeted for their strategic importance, logistics and the level of resistance on the ground," Haid Haid, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, told The New Arab.

"That said, from a military perspective, Jaish al-Izzah is considered the easiest target in comparison to HTS and (Turkish-backed) the National Front. It is considered smaller in size and doesn't receive much support from external backers."

The Free Syrian Army-affiliated group does retain popular support in Idlib, compared to outfits such as HTS which have been far more authoritarian and hardline in its rulership.

Former Syrian goalkeeper Abdel-Baset Sarout - who became popular with his attempts to raise morale during the Siege of Homs - serves as a commander in Jaish al-Izzah, and sustained injuries this week during battle with his unit.

Hospitals in the crosshairs

The regime and Russia's air war against Idlib has also been demonstrable in previous major offensives on opposition areas throughout the war, such as East Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Daraa.

Hospitals, marketplaces, schools, rescue centres and bakeries were destroyed with regime fighters advancing through the quagmire, or at least to roll back the successes of civil society in opposition areas. 

"These are tactics which it would appear to drive civilians out of territory... and the regularity with which hospitals are struck by Russia and the regime gives us serious concern, and similarly with markets and other places where civilians congregate," said Chris Wood, director of Airwars monitoring group.

"We have tracked more than 33,000 [US-led] coalition airstrikes since 2014, and I can count on one hand the number of times the coalition have struck a marketplace and every one of those times they have admitted an error. These markets are struck with such frequency and regularity that one can only assume they are, for them [Russia and the regime], targetable."

Tom Cooper, an Austria-based Middle East military analyst, told The New Arab, that a key aim of the Russian air force since entering the war has been to target the logistics depots of rebel groups, such as the FSA, and force their supply lines and fighters outside the country.

Russia has also looked to drive a wedge between local populations and rebels by decimating civilians and infrastructure in Idlib.

"It is a principle part of the Russian military doctrine and [general] counter-insurgency operations, which is to make areas under insurgent control uninhabitable, to empty them of civilian populations and push insurgents outside the country. They want to make [civilian] lives inside the country impossible and separate them from the population and force them to stop supporting the insurgency."

Cooper said that in most cases you cannot defeat insurgencies through bombing alone, but Russia - since entering the war in September 2015 - has had some success in trying to smother the nascent democratic movement in Syria by targeting councils, rescue workers and civil society groups.

"These civilians in opposition areas were organising themselves with 400 local councils in towns and cities in 2015 [including many that were] freely-elected. There was a growing democracy in Syria [before Russia entered]," Cooper added.
Without civilians and without supplies the insurgency cannot survive, and this is what [Russia] has been trying to achieve through their bombardments
"What was the solution [for Russia]? Bomb the local authorities, bomb the courts and local mayor offices. Bomb local food supply depots and the hospitals, bomb the local water supplies and water treatment facilities, because this is going to force civilians out of the country. Without civilians and without supplies the insurgency cannot survive, and this is what [Russia] has been trying to achieve through their bombardments."

The three million people left in Idlib are among the poorest people left in Syria, who do not have the money to pay smugglers to get them to Turkey.

Towns such as Kafranbel still retain a strong civil society presence and civilians that I have spoken to in Idlib still believe strongly in the opposition's aims in the war.

Still the regime and Russia are attempting to extinguish Syria's democratic movements by making towns that are known for their activist presence a regular target of the bombers.

"We are seeing the same again in Idlib. They have bombed something like 20 medical facilities in Idlib over the past three weeks, primarily the Russians as the Syrians don't have the aircraft and [capabilities] to carry out direct attacks on hospitals," Cooper added.

"It is aimed at making living there a complete hell so people run away and export the problem somewhere else. This is what [Russia] did in Afghanistan and Chechnya. This is what they have done in Syria, forcing millions to flee to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and some of them to Europe. The flight of refugees is playing into Russian hands because it disunities the EU."

With around a third of the population living outside the country, the war in Syria has heavily impacted on all of Syria's neighbours and on Europe.

With more than 500,000 people killed in the war, Syria completely destroyed, a proliferation in extremist groups, and Assad undefeated, the increasing sentiments of the world is to allow the regime to stay in power.

With no outside powers stopping Russia and the regime's latest assault on Idlib, Assad's gamble of uninhibited ferocity during the war and allowing extremist groups to spread in opposition areas appears to have paid off.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin