Syrian forces and Russian jets intensify attacks on last rebel bastion

Smoke billows into the sky after reported air strikes on a prison on the western outskirts of the Syrian city of Idlib, inside the militant-held bastion of the same name, on March 13, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 13 March 2019

Syrian forces and Russian jets intensify attacks on last rebel bastion

  • Rescuers say army used incendiary munitions
  • Army says attacks militants who violated buffer zone

AMMAN: The Syrian army, aided by Russian warplanes, attacked rebel-held towns in northwestern Syria on Wednesday in the most extensive bombardment in weeks against the last remaining rebel bastion in the country, rebels, rescuers and residents said.
Rebels who have fought to topple President Bashar Assad for eight years are now largely confined to the enclave in the northwest near the Turkish border. Around four million people now live there, including hundreds of thousands of opponents of Assad who fled there from other parts of the country.
The enclave is protected by a “de-escalation zone” agreement brokered last year by Assad’s main international backers Russia and Iran, and Turkey which has supported the rebels in the past and has sent troops to monitor the truce.
Residents said at least 12 aerial raids had hit Idlib city, including a civilian prison on its outskirts, where they said dozens of prisoners escaped. At least four civilians were killed.
Russia’s defense ministry confirmed it had hit Idlib in coordination with Turkey, targeting drones and weapons stores of the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militants it said were intended for use in an attack on a major Russian air base near the Mediterranean coast.
The Syrian army has escalated its shelling of the enclave since early February. The attacks have killed dozens of civilians and injured hundreds, and led to tens of thousands of people fleeing frontline areas to camps and towns closer to the Turkish border, rescuers and aid agencies said.
The Syrian army denies targeting civilians and says the army is responding to stepped-up attacks staged by Al-Qaeda-inspired fighters who aim to wreck the truce and control the area.
Residents along the border area with Turkey could hear heavy overnight aerial strikes that covered a wide stretch of territory from rebel-held areas near government-held Latakia province on the Mediterranean to Idlib city toward the east and extending to adjoining opposition-held parts of northern Hama.
“They burnt the land... The sounds were heard very clearly,” said Ibrahim al Sheikh, a father of five in the border town of Atmeh. He quoted relatives as saying the shelling was the heaviest yet in the two weeks of escalation.
The escalation in the northwest is taking place as a US-backed Kurdish-led militia has launched a separate assault on the final bastion of Islamic State fighters on the opposite, eastern end of the country, creating turning points on both major fronts of Syria’s multi-sided civil war.
In the northwest, residents said white phosphorous munitions were fired overnight on the town of al Tamana in northwestern Idlib countryside, where rescue workers on Wednesday said they put out several fires caused by more than 80 rocket strikes.
Among the targets of the aerial campaign was a makeshift tent camp in Kfr Amim, east of Idlib city, that shelters displaced families, where two women were killed and at least 10 children injured when bombs landed after midnight.
“Whoever did this is a beast, truly a beast. It’s a camp with only women and children. There is nothing we can say except that this Russian beast is coming to kill,” said Laith al Abdullah, a civil defense worker in Sarqeb town who helped in the rescue effort, reached by mobile phone.
Rocket shelling from a major army base in Joreen, in Hama province, escalated a week-long bombardment of rural areas near the town of Jisr al Shaqour, said Ahmed Abdul Salam, a rebel commander in the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front.
A Russian army base, south of government-controlled Halafaya town, also targeted Kafr Zeita in northern Hama countryside while cluster bombs hit several rebel-held towns in southern Idlib, rebels said.
The stepped-up bombardment has depopulated opposition-held towns in the buffer zone that straddles parts of Idlib to northern Hama and parts of Latakia province.
The opposition-held city of Khan Sheikhon had become a ghost city with most of its more than 70,000 people fleeing, said Yousef al Idlibi, a former resident who moved to Idlib city.
Turkey, which began patrols in the buffer zone on Friday, has condemned what it said were increasing provocations to wreck the truce, and warned that a bombing campaign by the Russians and the Syrian army would cause a major humanitarian crisis.
Many residents are exasperated by the failure of Turkish forces to respond to the bombardments. The Syrian army has called for Turkish forces to withdraw.


Bahrain to join US-led efforts to protect Gulf navigation

Updated 51 min 34 sec ago

Bahrain to join US-led efforts to protect Gulf navigation

  • Bahrain’s King Hamad voiced his appreciation of the US role in supporting 'regional security and stability'
  • US is seeking coalition to guarantee freedom of navigation in the Gulf

DUBAI: Bahrain said Monday it would join US-led efforts to protect shipping in the Arabian Gulf amid tensions between Washington and Tehran after a series of attacks on tankers.
Bahrain’s King Hamad voiced his country’s appreciation of the “US role in supporting regional security and stability” during a meeting with US Central Command (CENTCOM) chief General Kenneth McKenzie, state media said.
“The king confirmed the kingdom of Bahrain’s participation in the joint effort to preserve the safety of international maritime navigation and secure international corridors for trade and energy,” the official Bahrain News Agency reported.
The US has been seeking to form a coalition to guarantee freedom of navigation in the Gulf.
Britain, which already has warships on protection duty in the Gulf after a UK-flagged tanker was seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has said it will join the planned operation.
But other European countries have declined to join, for fear of harming European efforts to rescue a 2015 treaty with Iran over its nuclear program.
Bahrain, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet, said last month that it would co-host a conference with the US on “maritime and air navigation security,” set for October.
Iran has seized three tankers in strategic Gulf waters since last month, including a British-flagged vessel.
That came after British Royal Marines helped impound a tanker carrying Iranian oil off the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on July 4.
Britain suspected it was destined for Syria in defiance of European Union sanctions, which Iran denies.
The US and its Gulf allies have also accused the Islamic republic of carrying out several mysterious attacks on ships in the region, which Tehran denies.