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Russia confirms it targeted Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib with air strikes

Yesterday, Russian and Turkish presidents were asked to use diplomacy to avert a “bloodbath” in Idlib.

he head of Russia's National Defense Control Center, Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, speaks to the media during an inter-agency coordination headquarters meeting and video call between Moscow and Syria in Moscow, last month.
he head of Russia's National Defense Control Center, Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, speaks to the media during an inter-agency coordination headquarters meeting and video call between Moscow and Syria in Moscow, last month.
Image: Balashova Olga

THE RUSSIAN MILITARY has confirmed air strikes were carried out on Syria’s last major rebel stronghold Idlib with four planes targeting the “terrorist” Al-Nusra Front on Tuesday.

“Four planes of the Russian group at the Khmeimim airbase inflicted strikes by high-precision weapons on objects of Al-Nusra Front terrorist group in the Idlib province,” the Russian military’s spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

 Dominated by jihadist of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance, this northwestern Syrian province has over the past few years taken in tens of thousands of rebels and civilians evacuated from other areas recaptured by the regime.

In December 2016, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned that Idlib risks becoming ”the next Aleppo”, speaking after second city Aleppo was retaken in a devastating government offensive.

President Bashar al-Assad had declared he would use victory in Aleppo as a springboard to capture other rebel strongholds.

Offensive in southeast Idlib

A year later, in December 2017, government forces backed by Russian airpower launched a push for the southeast of Idlib province.

The objective was to secure a key highway linking Aleppo to the capital Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

After weeks of intense fighting, they drew closer to the main route and seized control of the Abu Duhur military airport and around 400 villages and towns.

‘Worse’ than Ghouta

In May 2018, de Mistura said a regime assault on Idlib would be “six times” more destructive than the battle to recapture Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold near Damascus.

Ghouta was retaken earlier that year following a devastating offensive which killed more than 1,700 civilians, according to the Britain-based Observatory.

Russia negotiated the mass evacuation of rebel fighters and tens of thousands of civilians from Ghouta to Idlib.

The population of Idlib and adjacent rebel areas swelled to around 3 million, of whom half are displaced from other parts of the country.

‘Now Idlib is our goal’-

After securing Damascus and the strategic southern zone abutting Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Assad said in July 2018: “Now Idlib is our goal, but not just Idlib.”

On 9 August, government forces shell rebel areas of Idlib and drop leaflets urging people to surrender.

The Observatory said the bombardments are the prelude to a full assault, but that regime troops are not yet well advanced enough on the ground.

On August 22, HTS leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolaniwarns rival rebel factions in Idlib against taking part in any talks on an agreed surrender, like those concluded in other rebel bastions.

‘Abscess’ 

On 24 August, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that seeking a military solution in Idlib “will cause catastrophe”.

Cavusoglu said that Turkey nevertheless considers “it is very important that those radical groups, terrorists are rendered ineffective”. 

On August 29, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the West not to obstruct an “anti-terror operation” in Idlib.

“This abscess needs to be liquidated,” Lavrov says. 

 ’Bloodbath’ 

On 30 August this year, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, in Moscow, reiterated his government’s “determination to liberate the entire Syrian territory”.

A flurry of meetings between top Syrian, Iranian and Russian officials indicated an offensive was drawing close, prompting US Donald Trump to warn the three countries against an attack.

Britain, France and the United States,  threatened that any use of chemical weapons by government forces in Idlib will not go unpunished.

Yesterday, de Mistura called on the Russian and Turkish presidents to use diplomacy to avert a “bloodbath” in Idlib.

- © AFP, 2018

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