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Despite fewer airstrikes, ‘ceasefire is not protecting civilians’ in northeast Latakia

AMMAN: An internationally brokered ceasefire in its sixth day “is […]

AMMAN: An internationally brokered ceasefire in its sixth day “is not protecting civilians” in the Latakia countryside and neighboring Idlib province, activists and a rebel spokesman told Syria Direct on Wednesday as the Syrian regime and its opponents trade accusations of violations.

Multiple shells fell near the a-Safyat camp for internally displaced people in Jabal al-Akrad, less than 1km from the Turkish border on Tuesday, activists and rebels told Syria Direct.

Regime forces were behind the shelling near the a-Safyat camp in the Obein area of Jabal al-Akrad on Tuesday, the same activists alleged. Syria Direct could not independently confirm this claim, but last Thursday, opposition media reported that regime rockets struck the same camp and killed one resident.

 Shells land near a-Safyat on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Ali Adra.

Tuesday’s shelling “caused many to flee the camp,” where there are “no military headquarters for any faction,” Waseem Shamdeen, a correspondent with the pro-opposition Umayya Media Center, told Syria Direct from the Latakia countryside on Wednesday. Residents fled into Idlib, heading towards camps near Khirbet al-Joz, the site of an unofficial border crossing with Turkey, currently closed.

“Every time the bombardment reaches them, people try to get closer to the Turkish border,” said Obein-based activist Ali Adra. “People do not trust the regime whatsoever, as it has targeted the camps more than once,” said Adra. One month ago, multiple regime rockets struck camps near Obein, destroying dozens of tents, injuring civilians and prompting hundreds to flee, Syria Direct reported at the time.

“This ceasefire is not protecting civilians,” said Adra. “Even after it went into effect, fear has not left the people at all.”

“Those who could leave the area have done so, those who couldn’t have stayed to face their fate.”

A “cessation of hostilities” agreement brokered by international powers in mid-February went into effect across Syria last Saturday. The ceasefire hammered out by Russia and the United States and signed onto by roughly 100 warring parties does not apply to the Islamic State, Jabhat a-Nusra “or other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council.”

While airstrikes have lessened, ground fighting and bombardment continues unabated in the opposition-held Jabal al-Turkman and Jabal al-Akrad areas of the northeastern Latakia countryside, as regime forces continue a months-long offensive to drive rebels from their last remaining territories there.

Opposition sources allege ground advances and bombardment by regime and Russian forces in northeast Latakia and the neighboring Jisr a-Shughour countryside since the ceasefire began.

“On the first day, regime helicopters barrel bombed Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkman, and on Tuesday ballistic missiles from Russian warships killed three civilians and injured 12 others,” Ali al-Hafawi, an Ahrar a-Sham spokesman told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“We agree with abiding by the truce but the regime is trying to take advantage of it to advance, so we won’t stand idly by,” added al-Hafawi, confirming ongoing fighting between rebel and regime forces in Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkman. Over the past three months, the Syrian army and its allies have retaken most of the Latakia countryside from rebel forces, and remain on the offensive.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights monitoring group documented more than 180 ceasefire violations by regime and opposition forces in the first five days of the ceasefire.

The Syrian government and allied Russian forces say that rebels are violating the nascent ceasefire in Latakia. “Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists” killed three civilians in Latakia on Tuesday, Russian state media reported.

In an interview with German broadcaster ARD the same day, embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that rebels had breached the ceasefire “from the very first hour,” adding that “we have refrained ourselves from retaliating” but “everything has a limit.”

“The regime and Russians are trying to paint the opposition as the aggressor and the one breaking the truce,” Omar Hawan, an Ahrar a-Sham fighter in Latakia told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“The regime is using the pretext of Nusra’s presence to target civilian locations,” said Ahrar spokesman al-Hafawi. There are Jabhat a-Nusra fighters in northeast Latakia, but “the places that have been targeted are not Nusra positions.”

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