A Turkish military column on patrol drives along a road in the de-militarised zone near the Idlib town of Saraqeb on March 8. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.
AMMAN: Apparent CCTV footage from the side of a building in Khan Sheikhoun recorded the shelling.
Explosion after explosion rocked the southern Idlib city, where shelling has become an almost daily feature of life.
For weeks, the Syrian army and pro-government forces have bombarded sites across Syria’s northwest. Russian and Syrian jets have carried out airstrikes on key towns across rebel-held areas of Idlib and Hama provinces including Saraqeb as well as Khan Sheikhoun and Maarat a-Numan.
The Syrian government and its allies maintain that they are attacking rebel factions—and on Wednesday, Syrian state media agency SANA reported that army units had launched “rocket and artillery strikes against terrorist groups” in several southeastern Idlib towns.
However, rescue workers say that targets have included civilian infrastructure including hospitals, emergency response centers and homes.
"The Syrian regime and the Russians are directly targeting cadres of the Civil Defense and emergency services,” a spokesperson for the Syria Civil Defense group of first responders, often known as the White Helmets, told Syria Direct.
The targets reflected a “deliberate policy...to destroy [them],” the spokesperson added.
Since last week, shelling and airstrikes have devastated the city of Saraqeb, in eastern Idlib province, and rendered its only hospital out of action, according to a local medical worker in Saraqeb.
“None of the staff or patients were injured because the entire hospital had already been evacuated about 15 minutes before the bombing started," said Mahmoud Eissa, managing director of the city’s al-Haya Hospital. "Work is underway to repair damage to the hospital, which will reopen soon."
It is the only hospital for thousands of the city’s residents, as well as those living in the outlying countryside, he added.
‘The Turks are asking us to be patient’
The latest round of bombardment is likely the longest since last September, when Russia and Turkey agreed on a demilitarization deal for Syria’s rebel-held northwest.
Brokered at the Russian resort city Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed on a comprehensive ceasefire establishing a 15- to 20-kilometer buffer zone along frontlines surrounding Idlib province as well as parts of neighboring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. The area is Syria’s last rebel stronghold.
Two deadlines last October, for rebel groups to remove heavy weaponry from the buffer zone and for hardline Islamists to withdraw completely, were a mixed success.
Rebels were also expected to withdraw several kilometers from both sides of two major highways—the M4 and M5—that dissect opposition-held territory. Both were major trade routes linking Syria with neighboring states prior to the 2011 conflict, and have become key pieces in the final play for the northwest.
The Russian-Turkish deal is widely credited with averting a bloody showdown between pro-government forces and a myriad of rebel factions present in and around Idlib province, including hardline Islamist fighters.
But one longstanding sticking-point in last year’s Sochi deal has been the widespread presence of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a hardline Islamist coalition spearheaded by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate. The group has seized vast swathes of the northwest since the beginning of the year.
HTS now controls some 80 percent of the rebel-held northwest after a lightning military campaign earlier this year.
Bombardments and ground clashes within the buffer zone have meanwhile tested even the most basic tenets of the deal.
The result: the Russian-Turkish agreement has been a mess of unmet deadlines, attempted spoilers and the dour constant of violence—and yet it has held, for now.
Turkey now appears to be trying to salvage Sochi. Ankara launched the first Turkish military patrols in and around the buffer zone on March 8, while at the same time attempting to rein in rebel and hardline Islamist groups back towards compliance.
In videos published by Turkish state media, a row of Turkish military vehicles are seen passing along backroads, surrounded by sweeping farmland, in western Aleppo province.
Turkey is also reportedly now in talks with Russia over extending patrols to Tel Rifaat, in northern Aleppo province.
“Turkish forces in Syria at observation points spread out in the areas of Aleppo, Hama, Idlib and the slopes of the Latakia mountains are preparing to conduct patrols in the areas of implementation of the Putin-Erdogan agreement,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor reported.
And in another nod to the Sochi agreement, last week Turkey reportedly demanded that opposition groups and HTS vacate the M4 and M5.
Some rebels close by have remained quiet. According to a commander from nominally Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated rebel faction Jaish al-Izza, which controls areas of the southern Idlib countryside, Turkish interlocutors have stressed that rebel groups sit out the bombing and wait for patrols to be completed.
“The Turks are asking us to be patient…[to] wait until the rest of the patrols have run their course,” he told Syria Direct earlier this week. “We are now taking a defensive stance to maintain our territory and prevent [pro-government] militias should they try to advance.”
Syria Civil Defense workers respond to a fire in civilian housing in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, following shelling. Photo courtesy of Syria Civil Defense in Idlib province.
Northwest locked in ‘cycle of retaliation and revenge’
According to Elizabeth Teoman, Turkey analyst with the Washington DC-based Institute for the Study of War, “plans for closer military cooperation in the form of future independent, joint patrols between the Turkish and Russian [army]...are likely aimed at fulfilling the latter clauses of the [Sochi agreement] on the resumption of commercial trade.”
“This is no easy task and not one I expect to be imminently completed,” she told Syria Direct, adding that patrols may also reflect the “early phases of implementing a wider strategic agreement between Erdogan and Putin in Syria.”
Still, the threat of an escalation is never far away.
Hardline Islamist rebel groups have conducted a wave of guerilla attacks against the Syrian army and its allies in recent weeks.
Unprecedented ground clashes between hardline Islamist fighters and pro-government forces in northern Hama province on March 3 left an estimated 25 pro-government fighters dead, after fighters from the hardline Ansar al-Tawheed faction attacked two Syrian army checkpoints close to opposition territory.
In the following days, HTS fighters then launched a series of attacks on pro-government positions in the Latakia mountains—including a so-called inghimasi attack that killed at least four Syrian soldiers and an Iranian officer, according to claims posted by HTS’ unofficial news channel Ebaa.
An inghimasi attack is one in which guerilla fighters “immerse” themselves into a battle, often behind enemy lines, before dying in battle or by detonating a suicide vest.
In both cases, hardline Islamists blamed bombardments targeting civilians as the motivation for their attacks.
“There are a number of reasons for this operation, some are direct and others are not—including [for example] the regime’s continuous bombing of towns and villages in the area,” Muhammad, a fighter from the hardline Islamist group Ansar a-Sham, told Syria Direct.
He spoke to Syria Direct on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press.
Ansar a-Sham is part of a joint operations room alongside HTS and Ansar al-Tawheed that agreed on the operations in both Hama and Latakia provinces, he claimed.
“HTS finds inghimasi attacks more efficient that others….[that] send a message to the regime that it is capable of carrying out quick and painful attacks whenever they want,” Muhammad added.
Sam Heller, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Syria Direct that ongoing bombardment in and around the buffer zone “may be in retaliation to some of these raids that HTS and other militant groups...have launched behind enemy lines, which are themselves framed as reprisals for Syrian military bombing.”
He added that this dynamic “puts both sides into a kind of cycle of retaliation and revenge that is likely difficult to break.”
According to Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Washington DC-based research fellow with the Forum for Regional Thinking, Syria’s rebel-held northwest now finds itself in a “schizophrenic situation.”
“Turkey is trying to salvage the deal despite the fact [it’s] being violated by the presence of HTS in areas bordering regime territory” as well as ongoing pro-government bombardment, while at the same time “trying to show that the deal is holding from the rebel side by conducting these patrols.”
At the same time, she said, the Syrian government has sought to spoil the deal in preparation for what it likely sees as an offensive postponed, rather than one that has been called off altogether.
“The regime is determined to retake Idlib sooner or later,” she said. “If they decide to storm Idlib, they will need to destroy rebel defences in southern Idlib.”
“This shelling is also useful, in the eyes of Damascus, by displacing civilians and further eroding the population’s will to resist.”
With additional reporting by Alaa Nassar and Noura Hourani.