Rebels launch Idlib counter-offensive

A Syrian youth walks through rubble and debris in a building that was damaged by a reported government forces' air strike in the village of Al-Haraki in the northwestern Idlib province on December 1, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 03 December 2019

Rebels launch Idlib counter-offensive

  • The assault comes ahead of a NATO Summit in London that will discuss the Syrian conflict

ANKARA: A rebel counter-offensive has begun in Syria’s Idlib province against regime forces and Russia-backed militias, days ahead of a NATO Summit in London that will discuss the ongoing conflict.

A coalition of groups has taken some towns from the regime in the southeastern part of Idlib, the last remaining opposition rebel bastion.

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, told Arab News that the aim of the opposition offensive is “to force the regime to cancel any plan for a future attack.”

Meanwhile, a second week-long round of talks on Syria’s constitution ended on Friday without agreement. 

There is as yet no date for the next meeting, and experts say the fighting in Idlib will further undermine efforts toward a political solution to the conflict.

“The regime cannot accuse the opposition of failing the political process as the regime is primary responsible for undermining it,” Ammar Hamou, senior editor at the Syria Direct news outlet, told Arab News.

“The Syrian regime is at the height of insolence because it didn’t abide by the cease-fire, and took control of Khan Sheikhoun and the northern countryside of Hama at a time when Turkey and Russia were supporting the political process.”

Halid Abdurrahman, a researcher and analyst on the Middle East and North Africa, said he does not expect the NATO Summit to resolve the crisis.

“However, some decisions can be taken on the fate of Syrian refugees currently hosted by Turkey,” he told Arab News.

“The attacks that were initiated by Russia in the southern part of Idlib may nevertheless trigger a wave of thousands of civilians to the Turkish borders.”

The regime cannot accuse the opposition of failing the political process as the regime is primary responsible for undermining it.

Ammar Hamou

Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch, said there is a risk that as the Turkish military and allied Syrian groups prioritize fighting Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, Russian and regime forces will take advantage of their departure from Idlib to intensify their assault there.

“The 3 million civilians sheltering in Idlib are at risk, completely vulnerable to Russia’s and Syria’s bombardment with little if any concern for civilian deaths,” he told Arab News.

“As has been the case for the past two years, the key to preventing a bloodbath in Idlib is pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Roth said.

“European governments especially must make clear that any hope he has for normalized relations with Europe, let alone future reconstruction assistance for Syria, depends on his preventing the slaughter of civilians in Idlib.”

Abdurrahman said the participation of some Ankara-backed groups in the rebel counter-offensive in Idlib “means that Turkey supports a military operation against Russia, while Moscow can use these clashes to justify a harsher intervention in Idlib in the coming days.”

Experts say the participation of Ankara-backed groups is a sign of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with recent contacts between Russia and the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers a terrorist group.

Last week, a Russian delegation discussed infrastructure and service issues with a YPG council in the northern Syrian city of Ayn Al-Arab, which the group was supposed to have left a month ago under a deal between Moscow and Ankara.

Hamou said if Turkey and Russia want the political process in Syria to succeed, they must put real pressure on the regime in Damascus, in the same way that the opposition is being pressured. 

Ankara and Moscow “must also explain what the political process means for civilians, and provide them with real guarantees,” he said.


Militants attack in Indian Kashmir as it locks down for anniversary

Updated 3 min 9 sec ago

Militants attack in Indian Kashmir as it locks down for anniversary

SRINAGAR, India: Militants attacked Indian security forces with a grenade and gunfire in Kashmir on Wednesday, defying a strict security lockdown on the first anniversary of the government’s scrapping of the disputed Himalayan region’s autonomy.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, police said.
Authorities blanketed Kashmir with troops, who laid out barbed wire and set up road blacks to prevent demonstrations a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped India’s only Muslim-majority state of its special rights.
The government said the change was necessary to develop the strife-torn region and integrate it with the rest of India but it infuriated many Kashmiris and neighboring Pakistan.
Some critics saw it as part of a pattern by the Hindu-nationalist government aimed at sidelining Muslims. The government denies that.
Kashmir is claimed in full by India and Pakistan, which have gone to war twice over it, and both rule parts of it. Militants have been fighting Indian rule in its part of Kashmir since 1989 in a conflict that has killed at least 50,000 dead, according to official figures.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was due to travel to the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir to mark the anniversary later on Wednesday.
He reiterated a long-standing Pakistani appeal for international intervention to help resolve the dispute over Kashmir between the nuclear-armed neighbors that has bedevilled their ties since the end of British colonial rule in 1947.
“It is imperative that the international community steps in immediately and backs its words of condemnation with practical steps that will force India to reverse its present course against the Kashmiri people,” he said in a statement.
India has ruled out any outside mediation over Kashmir.
In Srinagar, a handful of members of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gathered at their headquarters to unfurl an Indian flag to mark the occasion. The party had long campaigned for ending Kashmir’s special status.
Party spokesman Altaf Thakur said similar celebrations took place in all district headquarters in the territory. “It is an important and historic day for our party,” Thakur told Reuters.
Elsewhere in Srinagar, police and paramilitary troops enforced the strictest lockdown for several months, stopping public movements, including a proposed meeting of politicians.
“One year later the authorities are still too afraid to allow us to meet, much less carry out any normal political activity. This fear speaks volumes about the true situation on the ground in Kashmir,” former chief minister Omar Abdullah said on Twitter.
Last August’s change in status in Indian Kashmir was accompanied by a communication blackout, widespread restrictions and mass detentions, including of elected leaders.
Most of those measures have been eased, although Internet speeds are still restricted. More recently, many families have been confined indoors because of coronavirus lockdowns. (Additional reporting by Sheree Sardar in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Robert Birsel)