Russia bombing Idlib is response to ‘opposition rejecting land-grab’
Russia and Syrian regime's current bombing campaign against rebel-held Idlib province is due the Syrian opposition's refusal to accept new Russian terms regarding control of the province, sources close to the opposition's negotiating committee have told The New Arab’s Arabic-language service.
Recent negotiations in the Kazakh capital Nursultan, formerly known as Astana, ended last week without any clear agreement regarding a ceasefire in Idlib province, the last rebel-held area of Syria.
Russia and the regime have been ferociously bombing Idlib in recent days. On Tuesday, 26 people were killed and thousands more displaced as a result of the bombardment and a further two were killed on Wednesday morning.
The sources said that Russia had proposed a deal whereby the regime would take over areas of western Idlib province from Qalaat Al-Madiq up to (but not including) the town of Ariha.
Ariha would be demilitarised and only civilian opposition authorities would remain there.
In return, Russia would agree to stop bombing the towns of Saraqeb and Maarat al-Numan and other areas of southern Idlib province, leaving them in opposition hands.
The opposition had completely rejected the Russian proposal, saying that it would carve up the "de-escalation zone" established in September 2018 and guaranteed by Turkey, Russia, and Iran, The sources told The New Arab’s Arabic service.
The de-escalation zone covered all of Idlib province and parts of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces and was supposed to put an end to fighting.
However, in April 2019, the regime and Russia resumed their bombardment of Idlib province, violating the de-escalation agreement, killing hundreds of people and displacing over half-a-million between April and September. After a two-month lull aerial bombing began again in November.
The regime and Russia also advanced on the ground between April and September, taking over all of the opposition held areas of Hama province, as well as the city of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib province.
One of the main reasons for the opposition's rejection of the agreement was that it exposes large parts of central Idlib province to a potential regime attack or encirclement, including the strategic opposition-held town of Jisr al-Shighour, according to the sources.
The sources said that there was no real guarantee in the deal that Russia and the regime would leave Maarat Al-Numan and Saraqeb in peace, due to their violation of the September 2018 de-escalation agreement and other ceasefires.
Maarat Al-Numan was heavily bombed by the regime on Wednesday.
Opposition sources have said that the regime and Russia are preparing for a new ground offensive in Idlib province, pointing to recent troop deployments.
Russia and the regime reportedly wish to capture Maarat Al-Numan and Saraqeb as a first step to capturing the parts of the M5 highway - which connects Damascus to Aleppo - that lie in Idlib province.