‘Uneasy’ peace hangs over Syria’s northwest after airstrikes, alleged chemical attack

Fighters from pro-Turkey rebel coalition National Liberation Front (NLF) in Aleppo province on Sunday. Photo by Aaref Watad/AFP.

AMMAN: A Russian- and Turkish-brokered demilitarized buffer zone in northwestern Syria that has weathered months of tit-for-tat violence between pro-government forces and rebels could hang in the balance after a major escalation in bombardments there that has tested relations between Moscow and Ankara.

Warplanes—several of them Russian, according to multiple sources on the ground—targeted rebel positions across the demilitarized zone spanning opposition-held areas of Hama and Idlib provinces on Sunday.

The Russian Ministry of Defense meanwhile acknowledged responsibility for a series of airstrikes on rebel positions in areas of western Aleppo province outside the buffer zone, according to Russian state-owned media outlets. Russia reportedly informed Turkey of the incoming airstrikes before they happened, several Arabic-language news websites reported.

Eight civilians were killed in the attacks in southern Idlib province, local Syria Civil Defense spokesperson Ahmad Sheikho told Syria Direct Monday morning.

The bombardments—including surface-to-surface missiles and artillery barrages—purportedly came in retaliation for an alleged chemical attack by rebel groups on Aleppo city Sunday night that left more than 100 civilians hospitalized.

According to Syrian state news agencies, hardline Islamist militants launched artillery shells containing poisonous chlorine gas into Aleppo’s al-Khalidiya neighborhood.

International chemical weapons investigators are waiting to survey the reported impact site.

Fernando Arias, director of  the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told members of the press Monday that his agency would work to investigate the alleged chemical attack in Aleppo.

The OPCW is a watchdog group that has investigated numerous other instances of chemical weapons use during the course of the Syrian conflict.

Sunday’s bombardments mark the most significant uptick in violence in northwest Syria since mid-September, when a Turkish- and Russian-negotiated agreement designated a 15- to 20-kilometer demilitarized stretch encircling Idlib province that also included rebel-held areas of Hama and Aleppo provinces.

Although pro-government and rebel fighters have clashed almost daily along the sprawling frontlines in Syria’s northwest since the buffer zone went into effect on September 17, the agreement has held off what was a widely anticipated full-scale offensive on the country’s final rebel-held enclave.  

Still, this week’s escalation could test the limits of the demilitarization zone—as well as Moscow’s coordination with Ankara over its future survival.

“The agreement is at risk of falling apart at any moment,” one commander from a nominally Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated faction told Syria Direct on Monday morning. “The Turks are watching this happen in front of their eyes.”

Turkey, which backs several rebel factions and has permanent observer forces stationed at several locations across northwestern Syria, remains the de facto primary guarantor of the agreement. Ankara wields major influence in large sections of Idlib and Aleppo—but is charged with reining in rebels there, while at the same time removing hardline Islamist factions, including Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS).

“Turkey is supposed to be the big adult in the room when it comes to the opposition side—it’s the Turks who the Russians made the agreement with more than the rebels,”  Washington D.C.-based analyst Nicholas Heras told Syria Direct via telephone on Monday.

According to Heras, Sundays bombings reflect a “signal to the Turks that they really do need to have an iron fist when it comes to the rebels.”

The permanence of the Russian-Turkish agreement has remained in question ever since it was concluded on September 17, with statements from both the Syrian government and its Russian backers stressing that the deal would be a temporary one.

But months later, no specific plans to alter or draw down the deal have been announced by either side.

Analyst Heras added, however, that upticks in bombardments are “Russia’s way to signal that the demilitarized zone is not meant to be a permanent feature of the Syrian landscape.”

Rebel commanders on the ground in Idlib and Hama echoed similar concerns in interviews with Syria Direct Monday.

“We expected this—when the agreement was signed, the regime stated it was temporary,” Captain Naji, official spokesperson for the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), a major rebel conglomeration in northwestern Syria, told Syria Direct on Monday.

“The constant and repeated violations of the agreement are also a testament to this,” Naji said. “The Russians should be preventing these violations considering it is a guarantor, but they appear to be complicit.”

‘Uneasy’ situation

The September 17 agreement originally called for the creation of a 15- to 20-kilometer buffer zone between pro-government and rebel forces in Idlib province and its environs, the territory that serves as the opposition’s last major bastion in Syria.

According to the text of the agreement, heavy weaponry was to be removed from the buffer zone by October 10, and unspecified “radical terrorist groups” were expected to remove their forces entirely before October 15.

According to rebel commanders speaking to Syria Direct at the time, opposition factions successfully withdrew heavy weaponry before the pre-determined deadline. However, the preferred range of these weapons meant very few were in the demarcated area in the first place, they said.

Even so, rebel groups have reportedly maintained readiness to defend their positions in recent weeks.

“If the regime launched an attack, we’re ready to repel it,” NLF spokesperson Naji said on Monday.

Despite the mainstream opposition’s cautious willingness to adhere to aspects of the agreement, hardline Islamist groups like rebel coalition HTS, led by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, have reportedly failed to vacate positions within the buffer zone.

Beyond the agreement itself—finalized at an eleventh-hour bilateral summit between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi—its stipulations put the onus on Ankara to compel Idlib’s rebels and hardline Islamist groups towards compliance.

Other armed groups, including HTS, have signalled that they may be unwilling to either lay down their weapons or join Turkish-backed rebel conglomerations present in the rebel-held northwest.

Some, not least HTS, may be unwilling to do so.

Heras stresses that the resumption of airstrikes reflect “just...how uneasy the situation is.”

Syria’s rebel-held northwest is also a refuge to at least one million Syrians displaced from across the country, following a series of evacuation deals that forcibly vacated fighters, their families and other civilians from opposition-held areas across the country towards the north since 2016.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman. Follow Mohammad on Twitter: @mohamma59717689.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.

Jodi Brignola

Jodi Brignola is a former Syria Direct intern and current trainee in Syria Direct’s Media Training Program. Jodi is a Masters candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is in Amman on a Boren Fellowship.