‘Bloody and dire days’ in three Syrian provinces as rebel areas come under fire

AMMAN: Scores of regime airstrikes, mortars and artillery fire killed dozens of people across opposition-held areas in three Syrian provinces on Saturday and Sunday despite an ostensible ceasefire and the beginning of peace talks in Geneva.

The two-day aerial and ground bombardment of reportedly “civilian targets” took place the same weekend as a devastating attack on security services in regime-held Homs city on Saturday. A series of suicide attacks on two security centers there on Saturday killed dozens of regime personnel, including Major-General Hassan Daaboul, the head of the local Military Security Department.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a rebel coalition which includes former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, is thought to have carried out the attack, which occurred on the third day of peace negotiations in Geneva.

While UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura tried to keep the talks alive in the aftermath of the Homs city attack, Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations called the bombing “a message to Geneva from the patrons of terrorism,” in a statement given in Geneva, Syrian state media outlet, SANA, reported on Saturday.

“We say to everybody ‘the message has been delivered’, and that this crime will not go unnoticed,” he added.


A Syrian man carries a stretcher searching for survivors following an airstrike on Douma on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Sameer al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images. 

With peace negotiations in Geneva still standing, residents in the Homs city district of Waer, the east Damascus suburb of Douma and the central Idlib town of Ariha are taking cover in underground shelters over the weekend amidst two days of intense regime bombardment.

“Saturday was a bloody day in every sense of the word,” a media activist in Douma told Syria Direct on Sunday. “Today, the streets are empty.”

Waer, Homs

The encircled, rebel-held Homs district of Waer is witnessing almost 48 consecutive hours of unrelenting shelling and bombardment in what pro-regime media calls “revenge” for a series of suicide attacks inside the regime-controlled provincial capital on Saturday.

On Saturday and Sunday, regime warplanes fired more than 50 airstrikes, scores of mortars and tank shells and “continuous sniper fire” on the 4 sq. km pocket of rebel-held territory, the local Civil Defense reported over the weekend.

The attacks killed at least four local residents with dozens of others injured—including seven people reportedly in critical condition—in what local residents call two “bloody and dire days.”

“People know deep down that the regime’s forces are trying to exploit the explosions at the security branch in order to kill, destroy and displace the residents of this district," Jalal Talawi, a correspondent with SMART News, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Aftermath of airstrikes on the Homs district of Waer on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Jalal al-Talawi.

The airstrikes were reportedly “retaliation for the suicide attacks that targeted security buildings in Homs city,” pro-regime media claimed on Saturday.

In the past two weeks, there have been around 30 deaths as a result of the regime’s bombardment of the opposition-held district, Syria Direct reported. The last time an aid convoy reached Waer was October 26, 2016.  Regime sniper fire and an armed robbery waylaid two scheduled humanitarian deliveries last week.

Waer is the only remaining rebel district in Homs city since opposition fighters left Old Homs as part of a wide-ranging truce across the provincial capital in May 2014. Since late 2015, rebel and regime negotiators have met to discuss surrender, but the talks remain unproductive.

Douma, Outer Damascus

Syrian government warplanes reportedly fired rockets containing incendiary material on the East Ghouta town of Douma on Sunday, one day after a wave of airstrikes killed at least nine residents, local sources told Syria Direct.

“The missiles that rained down [on Douma] targeted strictly civilian areas,” Mansour Abu al-Kheir, a spokesman with the Outer Damascus Civil Defense, told Syria Direct on Sunday. The airstrikes hit “a school and a market, which were far away from any military headquarters and far away from the frontlines.”

Videos circulating online show Civil Defense units struggling to extinguish fires inside residential buildings on Sunday.

“The Civil Defense isn’t equipped to put out flames from napalm,” said Abu al-Kheir. “Those fires don’t extinguish easily.”

Syria Direct could not independently confirm the nature of the weapons that hit Douma on Sunday.

On Saturday, six air raids leveled entire buildings across the encircled east Damascus suburb of Douma. The collapse of one residential building reportedly led to the death of at least nine residents—including four children—who were taking refuge in an underground bunker.

The bodies that were eventually pulled from underneath the rubble were “charred and totally unrecognizable,” Osama al-Omri, a media activist inside Douma, told Syria Direct on Sunday. “People are angry, and the fear is palpable here.”

“The streets are empty…everyone is staying in their houses, and parents aren’t even sending their children to school,” he added.

Once home to half a million residents before the war, rebel-held Douma is a shell of its former self, one of the most bombed sites in Syria. The Syrian regime first encircled the city, East Ghouta’s de facto capital, in June 2012.

The weekend attacks come amidst an ongoing regime campaign 6km southwest of Douma to capture the nearby east Damascus suburb of al-Qaboun.

Ariha, Idlib

In opposition-controlled Idlib province, Syrian government warplanes reportedly bombed the city of Ariha, 10km south of the provincial capital, for the second straight day on Sunday.

At least five airstrikes—allegedly vacuum missiles—struck multiple targets across the city, including two missiles that hit the local Civil Defense office. In addition to injuring one rescuer, the bombings on Sunday put the office “out of service,” the Idlib Civil Defense reported on Facebook.

On Saturday, at least 15 airstrikes reportedly struck the city of Ariha, centrally located within Idlib province. Initial Civil Defense death tolls list at least 15 people as killed in the airstrikes and dozens more injured.

Saturday’s airstrikes reportedly hit residential homes, a packed major market and a fuel depot.

Warplanes bomb the Idlib city of Ariha on Saturday. Photo courtesy of the Idlib Media Center.

Photos circulated across pro-opposition media outlets from Ariha over the weekend show half-collapsed buildings and rubble-strewn streets as Civil Defense first responders fight to put out fires.

Airstrikes by Russian, regime and United States-led coalition warplanes are near daily occurrences across opposition-controlled Idlib province. Each party has stated that strikes target Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate and one of the ruling factions in the northwest Syrian province

Local residents, however, frequently claim that “civilian targets,” rather than military positions, are the victims of these airstrikes.

 

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Adam a-Shami

Adam is 26 years old and is from Damascus. He studied economics but could not complete his studies due to the war. He moved to Jordan in 2013. Adam joined Syria Direct to learn the principles of journalism.