Pro-regime forces intensify attacks on rebel-held areas after months of relative calm

AMMAN: The Syrian regime is both reopening and intensifying fronts against the opposition, with reported Russian airstrikes over Idlib province killing more than 40 civilians in the last 24 hours while intense shelling by regime forces hit residential buildings and a market in East Ghouta, Civil Defense representatives told Syria Direct on Monday.

Russian warplanes expanded an air campaign over rebel-held Idlib province that began last week to include the province’s northern and western countrysides on Sunday, Ahmad Sheikho, a spokesperson for the Idlib Civil Defense force, said on Monday, as attacks on the province continued for a seventh consecutive day.

Airstrikes killed at least 40 people since the uptick in violence began on Sunday, he said.

An agreement to include Idlib in the Russian-backed plan to implement de-escalation zones in four rebel-held areas of the country was announced earlier this month, but has yet to ensure any real sense of calm for civilians on the ground. That may be because a coalition of rebel groups in northern Hama and adjacent southern Idlib provinces launched an attack on regime-held villages in Hama last week, in an attempt to sabotage the de-escalation agreement, Syria Direct reported.

Regime and Russian forces immediately responded to the rebel offensive with more than 40 airstrikes on nearby rebel-held villages, hitting three hospitals and killing at least six civilians.

Syrian Civil Defense members put out a house fire caused by regime shelling on Douma, East Ghouta on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Civil Defense.

To the south, in the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta—one of the four de-escalation zones under Russia’s plan—pro-regime forces launched a new advance on Sunday, Saraj Mahmoud, spokesperson for the Civil Defense in the Damascus countryside, told Syria Direct.

The advance, which targeted the eastern edge of the rebel enclave, was accompanied by the “most intense bombing” of East Ghouta since the de-escalation agreement took effect there in May, Mahmoud said, adding that attacks on the area had decreased in recent months under the agreement, but never ceased entirely. 

Shelling since Sunday has killed at least one Syrian and injured more than 30 in East Ghouta, Mahmoud said.

Regime attacks on Idlib and East Ghouta are bringing, for now, an end to months of relative calm across rebel-held Syria where the de-escalation agreements were in place or planned. In addition to East Ghouta and Idlib, de-escalation zones are in place in southern Syria and northern Homs province.  

‘A complete standstill’

Residents say that after getting used to the calm, the airstrikes came as a shock.

“When the bombing resumed, life came to a complete standstill,” said Mohammad al-Junaid, a first responder with the Civil Defense in Khan Sheikhoun, a town in southern Idlib province where strikes have been constant over the past two days. [Read Syria Direct’s full interview with Mohammad here.]

“It was like Judgement Day,” said another resident of southern Idlib, Abu Mouath. “Night became day from the intensity of explosions and the light from missiles.”

In East Ghouta, Abu Mohammad, a resident of the town of KafrBatna, was out when his home was hit yesterday by regime shelling.

“We don’t know what our fate is nor where the future of East Ghouta is headed,” he told Syria Direct on Monday.

“We are dead emotionally and physically, despite still being alive.”  

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.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.