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.

Pan-Arab poll: Biden better for region, but must shun Obama policies

Updated 26 October 2020

Pan-Arab poll: Biden better for region, but must shun Obama policies

  • Majority of respondents to Arab News/YouGov survey consider neither candidate good for region
  • Findings show strong Arab support for Trump on Iran but not on Jerusalem embassy move

RIYADH: Nearly half the respondents in an Arab News/YouGov poll conducted in 18 Middle East and Africa (MENA) countries believe neither candidate in the upcoming US elections will necessarily be good for the region.
Of the rest, 40 percent said Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden would be better for the region while 12 percent said the same thing about incumbent President Donald Trump. But a key takeaway of the poll is that if Biden, who served as vice president to Barack Obama until 2017, wins the White House race, he would be well advised to shed the Obama administration baggage.
When asked about policies implemented in the Middle East under the Obama administration, the most popular response (53 percent) was that the Democratic president left the region worse off, with another 58 percent saying Biden should distance himself from Obama-era policies.
The study surveyed a sample of 3,097 respondents online to find out how people in the MENA region feel about the Nov. 3 US elections.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Containing Iran was found to be one of the top four issues that respondents wanted the next US president to focus on. Strong support for Trump both maintaining a war posture against Iran and imposing strict sanctions against the Tehran regime was noticed in Iraq (53 percent), Lebanon (38 percent) and Yemen (54 percent), three countries that have had intimate regional dealings with Iran.
President Trump’s 2017 decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem proved overwhelmingly unpopular, with 89 percent of Arabs opposing it. Surprisingly, in contrast to most other Arabs, Palestinian respondents inside the Palestinian Territories indicated a greater desire for the US to play a bigger role in mediation with Israel.
Arab opinion was largely split on the elimination this year of Iran’s regional “satrap” Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with the single largest proportion of respondents from Iraq (57 percent) and Lebanon (41 percent) seeing it as a positive move, as opposed to those in Syria and Qatar, where most respondents — respectively 57 percent and 62 percent — saw it as negative for the region.

Iran also figured in the list of perceived threats to US interests, although well behind white nationalism (32 percent) and China (22 percent). The other critical challenges for the US as viewed by Arabs were cybercrime, radical Islamic terrorism and climate change.
For a country that touts itself as an ally of the US, public attitudes in Qatar were found to be surprisingly out of sync with US objectives in the Middle East. The perception of radical Islamic terrorism, Iran and Islamist parties as the “three biggest threats facing the region” was much softer in Qatar compared with the region as a whole.
It came as little surprise that three quarters of respondents want the next US administration to make it easier for people from Arab countries to travel to the US. The figure for Lebanon, for instance, was even higher, 79 percent, underscoring concerns that many young Arabs are actively trying to leave the region.
Among other findings, Arabs remain overwhelmingly concerned about such challenges as failed government (66 percent) and the economic slowdown (43 percent).
Close to half of the respondents (44 percent) would like to see the next US president focus on empowering young people in the Arab region and solving the Arab-Israeli conflict (44 percent), followed by containing COVID-19 (37 percent), reining in Iran and Hezbollah (24 percent), quashing radical Islamic terrorism (24 percent) and tackling climate change (17 percent).