Latest military escalation in Idlib creates new wave of displaced

May 1, 2019

Amman: Late Monday night, a mortar shell landed just meters away from Mohammed al-Sheikh’s house in the village of Kafr Nabuda. The resulting explosion injured his brother and pushed his family to leave in search of safer refuge.

Syrian government positions near Kafr Nabuda began shelling the village on sunday Night, part of a broader bombing campaign targeting the northern Hama and Southern Idlib countryside.

Mohammed, 25 years old, fled with his family, crawling on their hands and knees across the farmland surrounding their town as the shelling continued, stopping frequently for his aged parents. They finally stopped when they reached a small house in Idlib city, which 15 other families were also taking refuge in.

The Syrian Government and allied forces have undertook an unprecedent military escalation over the last three days, assaulting the countryside of Hama and Idlib, leading to a massive wave of displacement.

On Wednesday, several other villages around the town of Khan Sheikhoun were subject to airstrikes, according to Syrian Civil Defense.

“We have counted 10,000 IDPs fleeing in the last two days, although the number is probably actually closer to 25,000, and could rise to as many as 60,000 IDPs if the bombing campaign on the region continues,” said Mohammed Hallaj, an official with the NGO Reponses Coordination Group.

At least 19 civilians have been killed by the bombing on Idlib and Hama and another 28 injured, since the bombing started three days ago, according to Ibrahim al-Judi, the head of the Civil Defense Center in Jabal Shashabo told Syria Direct.

“Nearly 90% of the residents of Shashabo and Kafr Nabuda have been displaced,” he said. While Syria Direct was interviewing al-Judi he noted that warplanes were actively conducting airstrikes in the areas where his team worked, and that his team had been nearly hit several times while evacuating injured civilians.

“Our team is having a hard time getting where we need to go because the roads themselves are being bombed” he said.

The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as The While Helmets, released a statement condemning the targeting of civilians and civilian buildings in northern Syria, accusing the Syrian Government of “deliberately bombing a warehouse of the Civil Defense, taking ambulances and other search-and-rescue material out of service, in addition to bombing medical facilities, including the only obstetrics hospital in northern Hama.”

In a statement, the US State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said “the United States is alarmed by the escalation of violence in Idlib and northern Hama. Ongoing Russian and regime airstrikes, along with attacks by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other groups connected to Al Qaeda in Syria, continue to destabilize the region.”

The statement continued: “We call on all parties, including Russia and the Syrian regime, to abide by their commitments to avoid large scale military offensives, return to a de-escalation of violence in the area, and allow for unhindered humanitarian access.”

Anticipated Military Campaigns

The military escalation in Hama and Idlib comes after the 12th round of the Russian, Turksih, and Iranian-backed Astana talks concluded last Friday without reaching an agreement on the creation of a committee to draft a new constitution.

The talks concluded with the guaranteeing countries reiterating their commitment to a “U.N.. facilitated political process in Syria,” as well as taking “concrete steps to reduce violations in the Idlib de-escalation area.”

Pro-Syrian Government media outlets, however, continue hinting that a battle against opposition factions in northwest Syria is on the horizon.

The state-aligned Syrian newspaper al-Watan reported on Wednesday that the Syrian Army had sent reinforcements towards the northern and western Hama countryside with the goal of launching an assault to take control of the Demilitarized Zone outlined in the Idlib de-escalation agreement.

On Saturday, Russian President Putin, speaking at a press conference, stated that a wide-scale assault on Idlib would not currently be practical, saying, “I don’t rule out the possibility of operations against terrorists in the de-escalation of zone of Idlib, but right now is not the appropriate time for it due to the risk of harming civilians.”

Putin added, “on principle, I don’t rule it out, but today we and our Syrian friends don’t think it is advisable.”

According to the Russian Defense Minister on Wednesday, the joint Russian-Turkish Truce Committee had observed three violations of the ceasefire framework in place in Aleppo, Hama, and Lattakia, while the Turkish element had observed twenty violations in the area including Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and latakia.

Last Monday, Syrian Government artillery fire landed near the Turkish observation post next to the village of Shir Maghar in the Western Hama countryside, killing and injuring civilians who had fled towards the observation post after shelling near their houses.

Pro-opposition media outlets reported that the artillery fire landed just meters away from the Turkish observation point.

 “The Turkish observation points don’t protect civilians from being bombed, they just observe and document,” Ahmed Subhi, an IDP from the northern Hama countryside, told Syria Direct.

“The Observation Point fired in the air to prevent IDPs from Sahel al-Ghab from approaching the position while they were fleeing the bombing,” said Subhi.

Ömer Özkizilcik, an analyst for the SETA think tank in Ankara, previously noted to Syria Direct that the escalation “is a part of a broader strategy that the where Syrian government is using military pressure to disrupt Turkish-Russian coordination of the de-escalation agreement, as this agreement has stymied the Syrian Governments ambitions for the time being.

“The regime is deliberately bombing Idlib, in order not to back down, and to prevent a ceasefire, because it wants to take Idlib in its entirety, in line with its stated policy of retaking every inch of Syrian soil,” added Özkizilcik.

Re-taking “every inch” of Syrian soil from opposition groups has been the oft-repeated promise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as the most recent escalation attests. This promise was followed by a series of sieges and eventual evacuation deals that led to the displacement of millions of Syrians from pockets formerly controlled by opposition groups to areas in the north of the country.

 At present, approximately 3.5 million Syrians live in northwest Syria, stranded between Syrian military forces aligned militias on one side, and the Turksih border on the other.


Translated by: James Bowker.

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