After weeks of relative calm, warplanes strike Idlib province ahead of impending battle for northwest

 

The aftermath of an airstrike near Jisr a-Shughour on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Idlib Civil Defense.

AMMAN: Syrian and Russian warplanes struck more than two dozen targets in northwestern Idlib province on Tuesday, local aid workers and residents tell Syria Direct, the most intense spike in violence in weeks as pro-government forces gear up for a looming battle to retake the country’s final rebel stronghold.

More than 31 airstrikes hit the rebel-held city of Jisr a-Shughour and several surrounding villages in western Idlib province on Tuesday, killing at least three people and injuring eight others, Ahmad Sheikho, a spokesman for the Syrian Civil Defense in Idlib province, told Syria Direct.

The Civil Defense, later on Tuesday afternoon, also reported the death of a further five civilians—all of whom were children—after a series of airstrikes and surface-to-surface missiles landed near Jisr a-Shughour.

The bombardment ends weeks of relative calm in Idlib, amid concerns that the Syrian government and its allies are preparing to launch a massive aerial and ground assault on rebel positions in Idlib province, now Syria’s last major opposition-held enclave.

“There have only been a handful of missiles and airstrikes in the past month,” local activist and Jisr a-Shughour resident Muhammad Abdullah told Syria Direct via WhatsApp on Tuesday.

“We haven’t seen anything like this for the last five months,” he said, describing how one airstrike landed beside his home shortly before speaking with a Syria Direct reporter on Tuesday afternoon.

Damascus and its allies have repeatedly hinted at an impending assault on Idlib in recent weeks. After an all-out military offensive—accompanied by a complex patchwork of ceasefire agreements—ended hostilities in the country’s south in July, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russian media that “now, Idlib is [the] goal.”

Bellicose statements by Syrian officials, along with the mobilization of pro-government forces on the periphery of rebel territory in northern Syria, have prompted speculation that a government assault to retake Idlib is imminent.

Late last month, the Russian military announced that two of its warships had been deployed to Syria’s Mediterranean coast—joining three other ships recently spotted heading there, according to Reuters. An Iraqi proxy militia, Liwa Imam al-Hussein, has also reportedly deployed close to Idlib province recently, while pro-government ground forces—including the elite Tiger Forces and reconciled rebel factions—were stationed near Idlib late last month.

US President Donald Trump warned President al-Assad, as well as his Russian and Iranian allies, not to attack Idlib province, citing via a Twitter post Monday evening his fears of a “grave humanitarian mistake.”

“Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed,” wrote President Trump. “Don’t let that happen!”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Idlib had transformed into a “pocket of terrorism,” and that the Syrian government is “getting ready to solve this problem,” Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

Northwestern Idlib province is the final major swathe of rebel-held territory left standing in Syria after a series of sweeping pro-government offensives earlier this year saw the Syrian government reassert control over the majority of the country.

Idlib is home to more than one million displaced Syrians from across the country, including tens of thousands of rebel fighters and civilians evacuated from former opposition enclaves over the past two years.

Hardline Islamist rebels control the majority of Idlib province, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law on local residents. Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), the largest and most powerful rebel bloc in the province, is spearheaded by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate and has frequently sparred with other opposition groups for control of Idlib.  

HTS controls Jisr a-Shughour and the outlying countryside targeted by Russian and Syrian warplanes on Tuesday.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

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.