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After inconclusive talks in Sochi, pro-government artillery escalates bombardment on key Idlib towns

AMMAN: Pro-government forces escalated artillery and rocket barrages on rebel-held towns in Syria’s northwest on Sunday, days after trilateral international talks between Iran, Russia and Turkey over the region’s future ended with little sign of concrete agreement.

17 February 2019

AMMAN: Pro-government forces escalated artillery and rocket barrages on rebel-held towns in Syria’s northwest on Sunday, days after trilateral international talks between Iran, Russia and Turkey over the region’s future ended with little sign of concrete agreement.

Rockets launched by pro-government forces killed one woman and injured three other civilians in Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib province on Sunday morning, according to Hamid Qatini, a member of the Idlib branch of the Syria Civil Defense, the group of first responders commonly known as the White Helmets.

Graphic images published online by activists appeared to show the charred body of a woman in the aftermath of the attack, which struck a gas station in Khan Sheikhoun, Qatini told Syria Direct.

“Dozens of artillery shells have landed in Khan Sheikhoun since early this morning,” Muhammad a-Saloum, an activist based in the city, told Syria Direct.

The last week of bombardment has prompted civilians in the city to move from “neighborhood to neighborhood” in an attempt to distance themselves from the violence, he added.

Further pro-government rockets and artillery shells landed in the southern Idlib city of Maarat a-Numan, north of Khan Sheikhoun, on Sunday, but no casualties were reported by Sunday afternoon, Qatini said.

Both Khan Sheikhoun and Maarat a-Numan fall along a strategic highway bisecting Syria’s northwest that connects the provincial capitals of Hama, Idlib and Aleppo.

Sunday’s bombardment follows a deadly weekend in northwestern Syria. Airstrikes by pro-government warplanes and artillery barrages killed 10 civilians in Maarat a-Numan and Khan Sheikhoun on Saturday, injuring at least 33 others, according to the Idlib branch of the Civil Defense.

This weekend’s strikes included internationally prohibited cluster munitions, the Civil Defense and local activists reported.

In pictures and videos posted on the group’s Facebook page late Saturday night, volunteers are seen placing warning signs around what appear to be small fragments of unexploded ordnance in Khan Sheikhoun.

Syria Direct could not independently verify the claims.

Members of the Idlib Civil Defense put out fires from a rocket attack in Khan Sheikhoun on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Idlib Civil Defense.

Trilateral talks in Sochi

Continued violence in northwestern Syria comes after the third round of trilateral Syria talks in the Russian resort city of Sochi between Turkey, Iran and Russia concluded on Friday with unclear results.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian and Turkish counterparts, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, released a 17-point memorandum on Friday detailing the conference’s topics of discussion—among them, the three countries’ commitment to eliminating Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a powerful hardline Islamist rebel bloc in northwestern Syria headed by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Since January 1, HTS seized swathes of territory from rival rebel groups in Idlib and Hama provinces and expanded its control over much of the northwest.

Recent HTS advances have called into question the staying power of an earlier Russian-Turkish agreement, brokered at Sochi last September, when presidents Putin and Erdogan brokered a comprehensive ceasefire establishing a 15- to 20-kilometer buffer zone along frontlines surrounding the opposition stronghold in northwestern Syria.

The Russian-Turkish deal is widely credited with averting a bloody showdown between pro-government forces and a myriad of opposition factions present in and around Idlib province, including hardline Islamist fighters.

Ahead of meetings with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts on Thursday, President Putin reportedly emphasized a need for “ensuring the definitive de-escalation in Idlib,” while calling for “concrete practical steps” regarding the presence of “terrorist” groups in Syria’s northwest.

Friday’s memorandum also praised the US troop pullout from Syria’s northeastern, Kurdish-held regions and reaffirmed Syria’s territorial sovereignty, but provided little clarity as to what concrete steps the countries would take to stave off all-out fighting in northwestern Syria.

Since the Russian- and Turkish-brokered deal last September, bouts of violence have continued to erupt in and around the buffer zone, and pro-government forces have launched sporadic bombardment on rebel-held areas of Idlib as well as neighboring Aleppo and Hama provinces.

In recent weeks, however, rocket and artillery attacks have grown more frequent, culminating in a major pro-government escalation last week.

“The bombardment began before the Sochi conference on Thursday, and has continued even more violently since then,” al-Qatini said, adding that artillery and rockets were still attacking sections of Idlib province Sunday afternoon.

Idlib province is home to an estimated three million civilians, including more than a million Syrians displaced from around the country in a series of forcible evacuations deals that have allowed the Syrian government to reclaim much of the country since 2016.

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