Civilian death toll mounts as Syrian offensive widens

A Syrian carries the body of a child at the site of a regime airstrike on the village of Deir Sharqi in Maaret Al-Numan, Idlib on Saturday. (AFP)
Updated 17 August 2019

Civilian death toll mounts as Syrian offensive widens

  • Airstrike in the village of Deir kills seven people, mostly children

BEIRUT: Airstrikes have killed more than two dozen civilians including 11 children in opposition-held northwestern Syria in the last two days in an escalation of a Russian-backed offensive, a war monitor and local activists said on Saturday.

An airstrike in the village of Deir killed seven people, mostly children, on Saturday morning, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. On Friday, airstrikes in the village of Al-Haas killed 13 people. The dead included a pregnant woman and her unborn baby, local activists and the Observatory said.

They had been seeking shelter after fleeing another area.

Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Observatory said the regime’s aim appeared to be to force civilians to flee from areas that had been relatively unscathed in a military escalation that began in late April.

“They are bombing the towns and their outskirts to push people to flee,” he said.

‘No military positions’

Ahmad Al-Dbis, safety and security manager for the US-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which supports medical facilities in the northwest, said the bombardment had widened into populated areas where there were no military positions.

“They are being targeted to drive the people toward forced displacement,” he told Reuters.

Dbis said the number of civilians killed by regime or Russian forces stood at more than 730 since late April. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said more than 500 civilians have died in hostilities.

Russia and Syria have said their forces are not targeting civilians and are instead aimed at opposition forces including the Nusra Front, an opposition group known today as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.

The northwestern region including Idlib province is part of the last major foothold of the opposition to Syria’s Bashar Assad.

France called on Friday for an immediate end to the fighting. The French Foreign Ministry added that it condemned in particular airstrikes on camps for the displaced.

The upsurge in violence has already forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee toward the Turkish border.

A Turkey-backed Syrian opposition force based north of the city of Aleppo, the National Army, said it had yet to send reinforcements to help the Idlib opposition fighters due to technical reasons.

“There is a meeting today among the factions over preparations for the National Army to enter Idlib and we are awaiting the results of this meeting,” Maj. Youssef Hammoud, its spokesman, said.

The regime side has been advancing toward the town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib province, threatening to encircle the last remaining pocket of opposition-held territory in neighboring Hama province.


Ankara accuses Tehran of betrayal: Is the alliance of convenience collapsing? 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold talks on Syrian crisis at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 16 min 34 sec ago

Ankara accuses Tehran of betrayal: Is the alliance of convenience collapsing? 

  • Erdogan says Iran betraying the consensus between the two countries

ANKARA: Recent developments on the ground in Syria may be proof of the demise of the already fragile partnership between Turkey and Iran, the two guarantor states of the Astana process alongside with Russia. On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi announced that Iran rejected any move from Turkey to establish military posts inside Syria, and emphasized that the integrity of Tehran’s key regional ally should be respected.
Prior to departing for Sochi, to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “I condemn Iran’s stance on Operation Peace Spring. Unfortunately, there are splintering voices rising from Iran. This situation disturbs my colleagues and myself.”
Erdogan also accused Iran of betraying the consensus between the two countries, after Tehran condemned Turkey’s ongoing operation in northern Syria against Syrian Kurdish forces and demanded “an immediate stop to the attacks and the exit of the Turkish military from Syrian territory.”
The statements are considered by experts another sign that the alliance of convenience between the two regional competitors is ending, with their regional interests beginning to conflict.
Iran has always been a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and has been keen to engage Syrian Kurds, Assad’s government and Turkey in dialogue following Ankara’s offensive into northern Syria, within the framework of the Adana Agreement as a legal framework to establish security along the border.
Tehran also held surprise military drills near the Turkish border on the same day Turkey launched its operation into northern Syria.
Dr. Michael Tanchum, senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies, said: “With the removal of US troops in northern Syria, which both Ankara and Tehran opposed for different reasons, Turkey and Iran’s conflicting strategic interests are now naturally coming to the forefront.”
Moreover, according to Tanchum, Iran has already fought elements of the paramilitary forces now that are now partnering with Turkey.
“Tehran is distressed that such elements are being empowered. While Iran needs Turkish cooperation in the face crippling US sanctions, Iran needs Russia’s cooperation much more,” he told Arab News.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi says Iran rejected any move from Turkey to establish military posts inside Syria, and emphasized that the integrity of Tehran’s key regional ally should be respected.

• Iran has already fought the elements of the paramilitary forces that are now partnering with Turkey.

However, Tanchum thinks that the idea Tehran would triangulate between Ankara and Moscow as a way of preserving its own position in Syria seems quite unlikely.
“If Iran has to choose between Turkey and Russia in Syria, it will choose Russia. In this sense, the previous dynamics of the Astana process are no longer in place,” he said.
However, Dr. Bilgehan Alagoz, lecturer at Istanbul Marmara University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, said that rumors about the death of the Iranian-Turkish alliance in Syria may be a bit exaggerated, at least for now.
For Alagoz, Iran is hesitant about cooperation between Turkey and the US, which has the possibility of creating a confrontation against Iran’s interests in Syria.
“On the other hand, Iran is uncomfortable with the US military presence in Syria. Therefore, Iran is facing a dilemma,” she told Arab News.
According to Alagoz, at this point Iran needs to pursue diplomacy with both Turkey and Russia.
“Thus, I do not think that the Iranian statements against Turkey will continue for a long time,” she added.
With the civil war now in its eighth year in Syria, Assad’s forces have gradually gained control of strategic cities in northwestern Idlib province, like Khan Sheikhoun, with Russian and Iranian support. The Syrian regime also attacked Turkish military observation posts in the region over the summer.
In the meantime, in a surprise decision on Monday evening, Turkey appointed former Halkbank executive Hakan Atilla, who was sentenced to prison in the US over Iranian sanctions breaches, as the new CEO of the Istanbul Stock Exchange.