Outside the ceasefire’s boundaries in Syria’s northwest, dozens of airstrikes slam ‘civilian’ targets

AMMAN: A series of airstrikes killed dozens of residents across opposition-held Idlib city and the surrounding countryside on Tuesday, local sources told Syria Direct, one day after representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey announced from a summit in Astana that they delineated “areas where Jabhat a-Nusra operates.”

Jabhat a-Nusra—now referred to as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—is one of the ruling factions in the northwest province of Idlib, the largest remaining stronghold of rebel territory in Syria. The former Al-Qaeda affiliate, which is not included in the Ankara ceasefire agreement signed in December, is now a target of both Russian and US-led coalition airstrikes.

Syria Direct interviewed more than half a dozen Idlib residents on Tuesday, including members of the Civil Defense, a doctor and a journalist at the scene, who accused Russia of most or all of the airstrikes. The sources on the ground claimed that attacks struck “civilian targets” rather than military positions, resulting in the death of civilians.

 Airstrikes level an Idlib city apartment building on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the Idlib Media Center.

Around 3:30am local time, up to 10 airstrikes pounded Idlib city in what interviewees called “the single most violent escalation” on the provincial capital since the signing of the December ceasefire agreement. The wave of attacks—which lasted for approximately 30 minutes—leveled entire apartment buildings and reportedly left up to 35 people dead with Civil Defense teams continuing to search for survivors in the rubble.

“The attack this morning was one of the worst that we’ve ever seen,” Munthir Khalil, head of the Idlib Health Directorate, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “It will be nothing short of catastrophic if the bombing continues at this pace moving forward.”

The population of Idlib city and the surrounding countryside has grown in recent months with the Assad regime relocating tens of thousands of rebel fighters and civilians to the province following the surrender of other cities across the country. Tuesday’s casualties included at least nine Syrians who arrived to Idlib city in the past year following surrender agreements in Darayya and Wadi Barada, among others.

Idlib’s Civil Defense called on its units from across the province—including in the towns of Binnish, Saraqeb and Sarmin—to assist in the emergency response operations in the provincial capital on Tuesday.

Aftermath of Tuesday's airstrike on Idlib city’s al-Qasour district. Photo courtesy of Haroun al-Aswad.

“The morgue’s freezers are far too full today,” Mutia Jalal, the spokesman for the Idlib Civil Defense, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “We’re putting in all of our manpower to search the rubble and try to save anyone who may still be stranded.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry Spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov rejected allegations of Moscow’s involvement in the attacks, with state media outlet Sputnik quoting him as saying on Tuesday, “The Russian Air Force did not carry out Tuesday, or this week, or even since the beginning of 2017 a single airstrike against the city of Idlib.”

“All such reports are a deliberate lie,” Konashenkov said.

Multiple sources on the ground—including the Idlib Civil Defense—also claimed that two US-led coalition strikes hit Idlib city early Tuesday morning. US Central Command made no comment by the time of publication on the coalition’s purported involvement.

On Tuesday, Bashar al-Assad told Belgian reporters in Damascus that increased cooperation between the United States and Russia in combatting terrorism inside Syria “is going to be positive for the rest of the world, including Syria.”

Inside Idlib city, however, residents disagree.

“There’ve been major fears since the coalition started working with the Russians in bombing us,” Munthir Khalil of the Idlib Health Directorate told Syria Direct. “This is only going to make things harder for us.”

“Whatever infrastructure that we’ve got left is going to be destroyed.”

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.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.