Regime forces advance toward key town in northwest Syria

Syrian families from the Idlib province and the northern countryside of Hama fleeing battles with trucks loaded with their belongings, drive past a flock of sheep on the highway, near Maaret Al-Numan on Wednesday. (AFP)
Updated 14 August 2019

Regime forces advance toward key town in northwest Syria

  • Idlib is the last major stronghold of anti-Assad opposition

NEAR SARMADA/SYRIA: Syrian regime forces pushed further into an opposition-held bastion in the country’s northwest region on Wednesday, inching toward a key town following months of deadly bombardment, a monitor said.

After eight years of civil war the Idlib region, controlled by Syria’s opposition, is the last major stronghold of opposition to Bashar Assad’s regime.

Airstrikes and rocket fire by the regime and its ally Russia have pounded Idlib for more than three months, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands.

In the south of the stronghold, almost all residents of Khan Sheikhun — which lies on a key highway coveted by the regime — have left the town.

The road in question runs through Idlib, connecting regime-held Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, which was retaken by loyalists from opposition in December 2016.

After a week of ground advances, Assad’s forces were just a few kilometers away from the town on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Regime forces are now 4 km from Khan Sheikhun to the west, with nothing between them and it but fields,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

HIGHLIGHT

• Airstrikes and rocket fire by the regime and its ally Russia have pounded Idlib for more than three months, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands.

• Assad’s forces were just a few kilometers away from the town on Wednesday.

To the east, pro-Assad forces are battling to control a hill just 6 km from the town, the head of the Britain-based Observatory said.

Airstrikes pounded the area, with a Russian warplane killing a civilian in the area of Maaret Hurma in Idlib province, said the Observatory, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.

Clashes on Wednesday killed 14 members of the regime forces, as well as 20 opposition fighters, it said.

State news agency SANA on Wednesday said army troops had taken several villages from the opposition in the area west of Khan Sheikhun.

AFP correspondents have reported seeing dozens of families flee fighting over the past few days, heading north in trucks stacked high with belongings.

On the highway not far from the Turkish border on Wednesday, a family was driving north in their pickup truck.

“We want to save ourselves,” said Abu Ahmad, 55, behind the wheel on the road near the town of Sarmada.

“We left our sheep, we left our homes, and we fled,” he said, dressed in a long white robe.

Sitting beside him, his wife Umm Ahmad said they had left almost everything behind.

“Our land is spilling with grapes and figs,” she said of the family farm near the town of Maaret Al-Noman.

A buffer zone deal brokered by Russia and Turkey last year was supposed to protect the Idlib region’s 3 million inhabitants from an all-out regime offensive, but it was never fully implemented.

An alliance led by fighters from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) took full control of the anti-Assad stronghold in May.

Regime and Russian airstrikes and shelling since late April have killed 820 civilians, according to the Observatory.

The UN says dozens of health centers as well as schools have been targeted.

Humanitarian workers have warned that any full-blown ground attack on Idlib would cause one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria’s war.

The conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad since starting with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.

Regime forces have taken back large parts of the country from opposition fighters and militants with Russian military backing since 2015.

But Idlib, nearby areas controlled by the Turkey-backed opposition, and a large swathe of the northeast held by Kurds remain beyond its reach.

Analyst Nawar Oliver said that, with the ongoing airstrikes and ground advances, regime forces aimed not only to retake the road running through Idlib, but also pile pressure on HTS and allied fighters.

Regime forces “won’t hesitate to bite off or control everything they can,” said Oliver, an expert at the Turkey-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies.

They want to “impose a new reality on the region, the rebels, and their Turkish ally, and to use it as a tool or weapon in any current or future negotiations,” he said.


Ahlam Al-Nasr: Daesh poet of poison

Updated 27 min 50 sec ago

Ahlam Al-Nasr: Daesh poet of poison

  • Al-Nasr is thought to have been originally named Shaima Haddad, a young girl from Damascus who fled after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011

LONDON: “There is no life but through jihad and its honor … jihad is our life and our victory It is what the soldiers of the enemy fear … and it is what created happiness in our lives.”

The above two stanzas are taken from a poem by the poet and writer Ahlam Al-Nasr encouraging women from around the world to join the terror group Daesh.

While little is known about Al-Nasr, her unconditional support for Daesh’s extremist, expansionist aim of imposing strict Shariah law on the world is obvious — and clearly evident through her writing.

“Ahlam Al-Nasr’s poetry was punchy and fresh, while still using mainly classical Arabic and the traditional monorhyme and focusing on the timeless tasks of praise, celebration, lament and lampoon,” Dr. Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University, told Arab News.

“Al-Nasr’s most powerful and enduring poems are simple clipped compositions that are ideal for conversion into nashids (anthems).

BIO

  • Nationality: Syrian
  • Place of residence: Unknown
  • Occupation: Poet,
  • Daesh propagandist
  • Medium: Poetry, book entitled ‘The Blaze of Truth’

“Set to non-instrumental music and sometimes with violent video footage, their catchy sing-along rhythms can appeal to aspiring Daesh fighters in the West even if their Arabic is weak.”

Al-Nasr, whose real name cannot be verified, is thought to have been originally named Shaima Haddad, a young girl from Damascus who fled after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. A report by the New Yorker magazine claimed that firsthand experience of the Syrian regime’s air raids had triggered her radicalization.

“Their bullets shattered our brains like an earthquake/Even strong bones cracked then broke. They drilled our throats and scattered/our limbs — it was like an anatomy lesson!/They hosed the streets as blood still/Ran/Like streams crashing down from the/Clouds,” reads one of her earlier poems on the bloody conflict.

Al-Nasr’s family fled to Kuwait shortly after fighting broke out, but the writer did not plan on staying in the small Gulf state for long.

She returned to Syria in June 2014 and, four months later, wed Vienna-born extremist Abu-Usama Al-Gharib in the terror group’s de-facto capital Raqqa, which capitalized on her recruitment into Daesh’s ranks.

Al-Nasr quickly rose to prominence among the extremists. Her poems covering death and destruction, of loyalty to the caliphate and the beheading of apostates, spread like wildfire among militants and commanders, spurring them even further through romanticized versions of their plight.

“Poetry is an incredibly powerful medium of communication in the Arab world, much loved among educated and illiterate alike,” Kendall said. “The Arab version of ‘Pop Idol’ features aspiring poets and has over 70 million viewers.

“More importantly, poetry endures. Militant jihadi Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and chat forums can be closed down, but the poetry remains lodged in the collective memory.”

Al-Nasr was a court poet in Raqqa and was used as an official propagandist for Daesh — an ironic move given the strict restrictions the terror group places on women.

Her book “The Blaze of Truth” is a collection of 107 poems praising the militants’ goals and supporting their “journey,” with the poetic, elegant prose designed to recruit even more extremists.

In one of her poems, she incites Muslims across the world to kill and burn the enemies of Islam, saying: “Our innocent children have been killed and our free women were horrified/Their only crime was being Muslim/They have no savior/Where are the heroes of Islam?/Kill them and burn them and do not worry about the consequences/follow your almighty sword, and you will make the best news.”

Opinion

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Other poems include praise for Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliph and Preacher of Hate Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who committed suicide during a US raid in October, as well as a poem titled “Osama, You Have Left” in which she mourns Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden and refers to him as a “reformer.”

Al-Nasr not only writes poems, but has also delivered a 30-page essay detailing her support for Daesh’s decision to burn captured Jordanian pilot Muath Al- Kasasbeh.

Much is yet to be discovered about Al-Nasr and her place within Daesh as the organization crumbles in the face of international coalition raids, but one thing is certain — her poetry will continue to be sung by the militants.

“My own survey work in Yemen shows that 74 percent of the population consider poetry either ‘important’ or ‘very important’ in daily life,” Kendall said.

“No surprise, then, that extremists use it to spread their message,” she added.