The aftermath of Russian airstrikes: Latakia tallies the toll

AMMAN: Russian airstrikes over the past three weeks have reportedly forced thousands of families in the rebel-held north Latakia countryside to flee their homes for crowded camps on Syria’s border with Turkey, a local official tells Syria Direct.

More than 2,500 displaced families have arrived at the Turkish border over the past two weeks, said Fadi Ibrahim, a member of the Free Syrian Council of Latakia, a rebel governing body.

“That’s 1,200 families up from last week,” Ibrahim said.

“Tents are still in short supply, often forcing multiple families to crowd under a single tent,” Ibrahim said, adding that they will distribute an additional 1,500 tents in the coming days.

“Other families are sleeping on the ground under heavy blankets,” a Latakia-based activist with the Shaam Relief Organization, a medical and humanitarian support group with operations across Syria, told Syria Direct.

The Latakia countryside is mixed demographically, comprised of Sunni and Alawite Arabs, in addition to ethnic Turkmen and Kurdish minorities. The area sits north of the Syrian regime's Alawite stronghold along the Latakia and Tartus coast.

In terms of which party is launching the airstrikes, the Russian Air Force shares at least the Su-24 airframe with the Syrian regime, which may occasionally confound airstrike attribution. Civilians, fighters and activists have however learned to recognize the distinctive signature of a Russian strike, as documented by Syria Direct at the outset of Moscow's October-launched air intervention in Syria.

 What remains of the home of Syria Direct reporter Noura al-Hourani’s cousin in the Latakia countryside following, a reported Russian airstrike early last week. Photo source: Syria Direct.

“The Russians fly in a multi-plane formation, and tend to deliver a more devastating explosive payload, as opposed to regime warplanes, which fly in one at a time,” Dr. Jawad al-Hatab, a Latakia-based physician, told Syria Direct.

Immediately following Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 on November 24, Dmitry Peskov, a Russian presidential spokesman, said strikes against rebels on Syria’s northwest border with Turkey “would without doubt continue.”

The Russian Air Force has since made good on that promise, escalating strikes against Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkman, Ammar Ibrahim, a Latakia-based journalist, told Syria Direct last Wednesday.

“Russia’s scorched-earth bombardment has increased dramatically since the Russian jet was shot down–for a time there was a strike every 10 minutes, starting in the early morning and continuing late into the night,” said Ibrahim.

Since mid-October, the residents of an estimated 55 villages in the Latakia countryside have abandoned their homes for camps on Syria’s border with Turkey, fleeing Russian strikes. 

Early last week, a Russian warplane allegedly struck the Bernas Maternity and Pediatric hospital in the north Latakia village of Bernas, less than a kilometer from Syria’s border with Turkey.

“A Russian warplane hit us with two rockets, one after the other, inflicting a slew of injuries,” Dr. Jawad al-Hatab, a physician at Bernas Maternity, told Syria Direct.

The hospital admits some 700 women and children each month, and averages between 200 and 350 births per month, said al-Hatab.

Bernas is only a five-minute car ride from the village and eponymous refugee camp of Aubain, home to more than 1,700 civilians who fled battles in Jabal al-Akrad and the western Idlib countryside. 

“About a month ago Russian warplanes struck 11 schools in Jabal al-Akrad, and another four in Jabal Al-Turkman, killing several students and teachers,” Mohammed al-Sheikh, the director of Free Education in Latakia, told Syria Direct Wednesday.

“These schools were serving some 4,000 students … now they’re all shut down,” said al-Sheikh.

“I remember we used to sit on the balcony together, watching the cars go by,” Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani, said of her cousin’s now-destroyed home in the Jabal al-Akrad town of Merj a-Zawiya, 6.5km southwest of the Syrian-Turkish border.

“A Russian bomb reduced it to rubble early last week.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Joseph Adams

Joseph was a 2013-2014 Boren Fellow in Arabic based in Amman, Jordan and is the founder of Open Syria. He holds BA and MS degrees in political science from UCLA and MIT, and is an MA degree candidate in Arabic at Middlebury College.