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.


Lebanese activists and critics of Hezbollah face attacks, arrest and threats

Updated 53 min 43 sec ago

Lebanese activists and critics of Hezbollah face attacks, arrest and threats

  • Journalist covering arrival of flight from Iran as part of coronavirus story assaulted at airport
  • Activist arrested and interrogated over opinions posted on social media

BEIRUT: Activists in Lebanon, in particular those who speak out against Hezbollah, continue to face physical attacks, arrest, psychological pressure and threats to their families. The individuals being targeted include lawyers, journalists, media personalities and writers.

On Monday, Asrar Shebaro, a correspondent for An-Nahar newspaper, was attacked in a public place. It happened while she was working at Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut covering the arrival of a flight from Iran as part of a story about the response of Lebanese authorities to the coronavirus threat.

A video she filmed showed an unidentified young man attacking her and taking her phone by force. He told her she was not allowed to film in the airport because these were “families” there, which is a term Hezbollah uses to describe its supporters. The man deleted a number of videos Shebaro had filmed of passengers arriving from Iran. When she asked him under whose authority he was acting and who he represented, he said that he belonged to a political party.

In a message posted on the An-Nahar website, the newspaper said: “The bullying of the media and the truth will not dissuade this newspaper from completing its message by accurately conveying information and holding those responsible for their fragile measures taken to combat the Coronavirus.”

Activists in Lebanon, especially Shiites, have faced threats as the protests against corruption, the financial crisis in the country, high levels of unemployment and the lack of basic services escalated. Some told Arab News they have been prevented from visiting their families in the southern suburbs of Beirut, and that pressure has been put on their relatives.  In some cases, protesters have been forced to sleep in tents at protest sites or other locations.

“The pressure and attacks have diminished after a decision was taken to prevent the supporters of the Amal Movement and Hezbollah from confronting activists in the protest squares, but this does not stop moral pressure,” said activist Mohamed Kassem, who is a secondary school teacher.

Protester Mahmoud Fakih, who lives in Beirut, said he avoids neighborhoods dominated by the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.

“At the beginning of the revolution, the pressure on us was great but it decreased with the decline of the movement,” he said. “Yet, we are still cautious. For example, I do not go to my village in the south. There is real social hostility to us there. We were previously attacked in the Zuqaq Al-Blat area but nobody documents these attacks.”

Ali Al-Amin, another activist, said: “At the beginning of the protests, a number of Shiite clerics strongly participated but suddenly they disappeared from the protest sites. It was found that, in cooperation with security services that have good relations with Hezbollah, false charges were filed against one of them related to unpaid taxes, so he was arrested and held in custody for a few days. Another cleric…is still detained on another charge, and a third was severely beaten.”

The pressure exerted on activists is not limited to one particular social group. According to Al-Amin, the situation is “more complicated and linked to a range of internal and external issues … Everyone who disagrees with Hezbollah is subject to repression and threats.”

Some protesters have faced arrest and detention as a result of opinions posted on social media. In the most recent case, activist Charbel Khoury was interrogated on Monday by the authorities about messages he had posted. His arrest was ordered by a judge alleged to be a supporter of the Free Patriotic Movement, while lawyers protested outside the Palace of Justice in Beirut to demand the independence of the judiciary from political influence.

One of Khoury’s lawyers described his arrest as a “judicial scandal. We have had enough of the suppression of the revolutionaries and the violation of freedom of opinion and expression. The Lebanese judiciary is today facing a major test.”

Al-Amin said: “The way in which Hezbollah suppresses militants differs from that of other parties. Hezbollah is a security party and it does not initiate a direct reaction; it refers the matter to the ‘family’ environment to exert pressure. And this (the family) of course does not operate on its own, but there is an apparatus that manages it and incites it.”

He added: “Despite the iron grip other parties have on their supporters, many of them came out from under the cloak of those parties and joined the protests and turned against their parties. But the Shiite community is still governed by a security apparatus that even controls the security institutions of the state.”

A passenger on a flight from Qom in Iran tested positive for the coronavirus last Thursday. It was the first case discovered in Lebanon. Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah said that focusing on the issue of people traveling from Iran to Lebanon and calling for flights to be grounded “is a politicization of the issue.”