Regime, Russian airstrikes unabated in wake of US airbase bombing, kill dozens in northern Syria

AMMAN: Russian and regime warplanes unleashed dozens of airstrikes across opposition controlled Idlib province over the weekend, killing up to 35 civilians in the days following a US missile attack on a regime airbase, local sources told Syria Direct.

Since Friday, airstrikes hit more than 10 cities and towns across Idlib province—Syrian rebels' largest remaining stronghold—destroying residential homes and crowded markets.

The spate of bombings began hours after the United States bombed the Syrian regime's Shayrat airbase in Homs with dozens of cruise missiles early Friday morning. Washington said that the planes that carried out a chemical attack on the southern Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun last Tuesday took off from Shayrat.

The series of Idlib airstrikes are also part of a wave of attacks by the Assad regime and its allies that has dismantled the area’s already fragile health care infrastructure and killed hundreds of civilians.

The US attack did nothing to slow the pace of conventional bombings in Idlib province, sources on the ground told Syria Direct. Rather, they charge both regime and Russian warplanes of “escalating their use” of internationally banned cluster munitions and incendiary bombs hours after the United States’ Friday morning strikes.

The Syrian regime is “taking revenge on civilians for the United States’ bombing of the airbase,” a spokesman for the Idlib Civil Defense in the city of Ariha, told Syria Direct on Sunday. “The victims are all civilians; there are no fighters among the dead.”

The weekend’s deadliest bombing occurred in the outlying Idlib town Orem al-Joz, 15km southwest of the provincial capital, when a reportedly Russian warplane fired two vacuum missiles on a crowded market.

The attack ripped through repair shops, home appliance stores and residential buildings lining one of the town’s streets, killing an estimated 16 people around 6:15pm, one of the market’s most crowded hours. Just one hour earlier, a reported cluster munitions attack killed three people traveling in a car on the other end of town.

The double bombing stunned Orem al-Joz residents, as the latest wave of attacks has inflicted its largest damage on Idlib’s major urban centers, generally sparing the town.

 Syrians carry the body of a victim following an airstrike on Maarat a-Numan on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Mohamed al-Bakour/AFP/Getty Images.

“There are no military headquarters here, there are no checkpoints and no medical positions nearby, or even remotely close to where the airstrikes hit,” Mustafa, a resident of Orem al-Joz, told Syria Direct on Sunday. “The majority of those killed are the shop owners and residents of the area.”

“There has been an undeniable escalation in this area and the Idlib countryside as a whole since the US airstrikes," said Mustafa. "If anything, they’ve made matters worse and have led Russia and the regime to increase their airstrikes,” he added.

Neither Syrian nor Russian state media commented on airstrikes in Idlib province over the weekend. Both did, however, accuse the United States on Sunday of “aiding terrorism” and maintained that the targeted Shayrat airbase is still operational and carrying “out military flights, striking terrorism.”

Elsewhere in the province, the Idlib Civil Defense reported that airstrikes killed at least two of their volunteers in the southwest city of Jisr a-Shughour on Friday and that two airstrikes killed at least “10 civilians in residential neighborhoods” in the southern Idlib town of Heesh on the same day.

Pro-opposition sources accuse the regime of using internationally banned phosphorus bombs while attacking Heesh, 42km south of Idlib, over the weekend. Videos circulated online the same day purported to show incendiary munitions.

 Civil Defense worker marks an unexploded ordnance near Orem al-Joz on Saturday. Photo courtesy of the Idlib Civil Defense.

“We saw the bombs light up the sky as they fell to the ground with a trail of white smoke,” Mahmoud Ali, an Idlib-based correspondent with pro-opposition Umayya Press, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

“It’s clear that this is a response by the regime and its allies to Trump’s targeting of the airbase,” he added. “In my opinion, the regime and Russia are challenging the world by using banned weapons that are no less dangerous than chemical weapons.”

Already this year, Syrian, Russian and United States-led coalition airstrikes have killed hundreds of civilians across Idlib and Hama provinces. With such attacks a daily occurrence, the potential loss of life from any one airstrike is elevated given the high population density in northern Syrian towns and cities where displaced Syrians have taken refuge.

Tens of thousands of rebel fighters and civilians have arrived to Idlib province in recent months, the result of a series of rebel surrenders and subsequent evacuation deals around the 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 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.