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Why does the battle for Idlib matter?

PostPosted: Thu Jun 20, 2019 11:20 am
Author: Anthea
Why does the battle for Idlib matter?

The opposition-held province of Idlib in north-western Syria could become the scene of the final, and perhaps bloodiest, showdown between the government and armed groups seeking its overthrow. The UN says the result could be a humanitarian catastrophe

What's so important about Idlib?

The province, along with adjoining parts of northern Hama and western Aleppo, is the last stronghold of the rebel and jihadist groups that have been trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad for the past eight years.

The UN estimates it is home to 3 million people, including 1 million children. More than 40% of the civilians there come from other previously opposition-held areas.

Idlib also borders Turkey, to the north, and straddles highways running south from Aleppo to Hama and the capital Damascus, and west to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast - all cities controlled by the government.

If Idlib is retaken by Mr Assad, it would effectively signal the opposition's defeat.

Who controls the province?

Idlib had been controlled by a number of rival factions, rather than a single group, since it fell to the opposition in 2015. But in January 2019 the jihadist alliance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) staged a violent takeover.

It expelled some mainstream rebel fighters from Idlib to the neighbouring Afrin region, which is controlled by Turkish-backed factions, and forced those remaining to accept civilian control by an administration it backs - the "Salvation Government".

HTS, which was known as al-Nusra Front before it broke off formal ties with al-Qaeda three years, is designated as a terrorist organisation by the UN.

Estimates put the number of opposition fighters currently in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo at between 20,000 and 50,000. It is not clear how many are jihadists.

In January, a UN committee cited a member state as saying HTS had some 20,000 fighters in Idlib province, including a significant number of foreigners.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's leader says the group will "keep fighting until the last breath"

The Turkistan Islamic Party, a mostly Chinese Uighur group closely allied to HTS, is also estimated to have a few thousand fighters. Hurras al-Din, which is widely believed to be al-Qaeda's new Syrian branch, and the rival Islamic State (ISIS) group are thought to have several hundred fighters each.

Before the HTS takeover, most non-jihadist groups in Idlib fought under the banner of the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF). NLF factions that stayed neutral, like Faylaq al-Sham, or yielded to HTS, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham, continue to operate on the ground.

Why has the government stepped up its attacks?

The civil war has swung heavily in President Assad's favour in the past three years. Air strikes by his ally, Russia, and support from thousands of militia fighters backed by Iran, his other main ally, have helped the Syrian army recapture opposition strongholds elsewhere in the country.

In August 2018, the government declared that its priority was to "liberate" Idlib and troops prepared for an all-out assault.

But the following month, the presidents of Russia and Turkey averted an offensive by agreeing to establish a "demilitarised buffer zone" along the front line. Mainstream rebels were required to pull their heavy weapons out of the zone, and jihadists were told to withdraw altogether.

Turkish troops were deployed to monitor the agreement, but it was never fully implemented. Rebels reportedly withdrew some heavy weapons, but the jihadists stayed.

Since the HTS takeover there has been a marked escalation in hostilities. Government and Russian air strikes have pounded the opposition enclave, while jihadists have shelled government-held areas.

Some 50 health facilities and schools have also reportedly been attacked since 30 Apri.l

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says that since mid-February at least 615 civilians and 483 rebel and jihadist fighters have been killed attacks by the government and its allies.

In the same period, opposition attacks have killed 50 civilians and 437 troops and pro-government militiamen, according to the SOHR. More than 1,000 of the fatalities - a third of them civilians - have been reported since 30 April, when government forces began advancing from the south.

The government has said it is responding to violations of the truce agreement and that it will "spare no effort to rescue its citizens from the dominance of terrorist organisations in Idlib".

HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani has said his group will "keep fighting until the last breath for every inch of land we control".

What could happen to the civilians in Idlib?

UN Secretary General António Guterres stressed in September that it was "absolutely essential to avoid a full-scale battle in Idlib", warning such a scenario would "unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any we have seen" in Syria.

Many displaced people are already experiencing dire conditions in overcrowded sites where basic services are stretched to breaking point. Two-thirds of the 270,000 people displaced by the latest fighting are reportedly living in open fields or sheltering under trees.

The UN and its humanitarian partners have already been forced to suspend operations in areas of active hostilities, and they have said a full government incursion would "overwhelm all ability to respond".

To compound matters, the millions living in Idlib seemingly have nowhere else to go. Turkey's border is closed, the Afrin region is already crowded with displaced people, and many opposition supporters fear imprisonment if they cross into government territory.

UN Emergency Relief Co-ordinator Mark Lowcock has said a failure to end the violence and find a long-term solution could result in "the loss of huge numbers of people - running into hundreds of thousands, possible even more".

Can an attack on Idlib be prevented?

That appears to depend on Turkey and Russia.

Turkey, which is already home to three million Syrian refugees and fears a new wave of people heading towards its border, has accused the Syrian government of breaching the truce and told Russia that its ally "must be controlled".

But Russia has said it is the "responsibility of the Turkish side" to first put an end to attacks by jihadists on civilians and Russian military positions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to rule out a full-scale assault on Idlib, but he has also noted that "we and our Syrian friends consider that to be inadvisable" because of the humanitarian situation.

Re: Why does the battle for Idlib matter?

PostPosted: Mon Aug 12, 2019 9:25 pm
Author: Anthea
Syrian government takes strategic
Idlib town in deadly weekend battle

Syrian government forces seized a town on the edge of Idlib on Sunday, a monitor said, in their first ground advance in the province since an escalation on the militant-dominated enclave more than three months ago

The region of northwestern Syria, which is home to about three million civilians, has come under almost daily Syrian and Russian bombardment since late April, AFP said.

The most recent battle, which cost the lives of more than 100 fighters over the weekend, took place in an area straddling Idlib and Hama provinces, a war monitor said, and claimed dozens of lives on both sides.

"Regime forces seized the town of al-Habeet in Idlib's southern countryside at dawn," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

UN to investigate attacks on humanitarian facilities in Syria's Idlib province

Rebels have not yet commented on the fighting around al-Habeet but this week acknowledged losing ground nearby as the army ramped up its offensive after a brief ceasefire, Reuters said.

The Idlib area has escaped the control of President Bashar al-Assad's government since 2015 and is the last major bastion of opposition to his government and its allies.

The three-month offensive has made slower progress than any by Assad since Russia entered the war on his side in 2015, prompting a run of military victories that have brought most of Syria back under his rule.

Assad, who offered prayers for Islam's Eid al-Adha holiday in Damascus on Sunday morning, has sworn to take back every inch of Syria. However, other large areas are still beyond his control including the Kurdish-controlled northeast and a Turkish-held strip along the frontier.

Turkey, a supporter of some rebel groups, has posted military observation posts around the enclave's front lines, complicating Syrian army advances.

The monitoring group also reported two civilians killed, including a child, by government and Russian air strikes on Sunday in the south of Idlib province.

The capture of al-Habeet, one of several strategic targets for advancing pro-government forces, came after another night of deadly fighting, the Observatory said.

According to the Britain-based monitor's tally, 70 combatants were killed on Saturday, 32 of them pro-government forces.

Two-thirds of Security Council calls for UN probe into attacks on Syrian hospitals

The remaining 38 were from the opposing ranks of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the militant outfit led by members of al-Qaeda's former Syria franchise and allied rebel fighters.

Rami Abdel Rahman said at least another 38 combatants, 14 of them government fighters, were killed in fighting on Sunday.

He described al-Habeet as "the first town in southern Idlib to be taken by the regime since the start of the escalation" in April.

The town is seen as a stepping stone towards Khan Sheikhun, one of the main towns in Idlib and the target of some of the eight-year-old conflict's deadliest air strikes.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in recent weeks and aid groups have warned that an all-out assault on Idlib could turn the current humanitarian emergency into a catastrophe of proportions previously unseen.

Syrian military air strikes have targeted hospitals, schools, water points, markets, bakeries and other civilian infrastructure, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Mumtzis, has said.

The fighting is a violation of a deal that was reached by the battle's two main foreign brokers - Russia and Turkey - but was never fully implemented.

Russia is Damascus's main backer, while Turkey holds sway over some rebel and militant forces along its border. The deal's terms were never realistic but the accord sealed in the Russian resort of Sochi in September 2018 has so far staved off a full-fledged offensive. ... end-battle

Re: Why does the battle for Idlib matter?

PostPosted: Mon Aug 19, 2019 11:00 pm
Author: Anthea
Tensions spike as Turkish
convoy enters northwest Syria

A Turkish military convoy crossed into jihadist-run northwest Syria Monday, sending tensions soaring between Damascus and rebel-backer Ankara which said its forces were targeted with an air strike

The Syrian government reacted angrily after the convoy entered Idlib province and headed towards a key town where regime forces are waging fierce battles with jihadists and rebels.

After eight years of civil war, the jihadist-run Idlib region on the border with Turkey is the last major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The region of some three million people was supposed to be protected by a Turkish-Russian buffer zone deal signed last year, but instead regime and Russian forces have upped their deadly bombardment of the bastion since late April.

Following days of inching forward on the ground, Russian-backed regime forces on Sunday took control of the edges of the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the south of the stronghold.

On Monday, an AFP correspondent saw a military convoy of around 50 armoured vehicles including personnel carriers and at least five tanks travelling southwards through the Idlib province.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported Syrian and Russian air strikes aimed at hindering the convoy's advance through Idlib province.

Turkey's defence ministry "strongly" condemned the attack, which it said had killed three civilians and wounded 12.

"Despite repeated warnings we made to the authorities of the Russian Federation, the military operations by the regime forces continue in Idlib region in violation of the existing memorandums and agreements with the Russian Federation," it said in a statement.

The Damascus regime meanwhile denounced the convoy's crossing over from Turkey.

"Turkish vehicles loaded with munitions... are heading towards Khan Sheikhoun to help the terrorists," a foreign ministry source said, using the regime's blanket term for Turkish-backed rebels and jihadists.

This confirmed "the support provided by the Turkish regime to terrorist groups," state news agency SANA reported the source as saying.

The AFP correspondent saw them in the town of Maaret al-Noman, which lies 15 kilometres north of Khan Sheikhoun.

A Russian air strike hit the rebel vehicle leading the convoy just outside Maaret al-Noman, killing a Turkish-backed fighter from the Faylaq al-Sham group, the Britain-based Observatory said.

The AFP correspondent saw the convoy pause briefly outside the town.

After the convoy made it inside the town, Russian and Syrian warplanes targeted its outskirts in an apparent "attempt to prevent the convoy from advancing", Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

On Sunday, pro-regime forces backed by Russian air strikes took control of Khan Sheikhoun's northwestern outskirts.

Fighting continues to east and west of the town, the Observatory says.

Any seizure of Khan Sheikhoun and territory further east would encircle a patch of countryside to its south, including the town of Morek that is home to a key Turkish observation post.

It would also see the regime secure a position on a key highway connecting government-held Damasc'Protect Khan Sheikhoun'?us with the northern city of Aleppo, which the regime retook from rebels in December 2016.

Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for the National Liberation Front rebel grouping, told AFP: "The Turkish reinforcements were headed to... Morek."

'Protect Khan Sheikhoun'?

The Idlib region was supposed to be protected from a massive regime offensive by a buffer zone deal signed between Russia and Turkey in September last year.

Some Turkish troops were deployed to patrol the planned buffer zone, but it was never fully implemented as jihadists refused to withdraw from the future demilitarised cordon.

Analyst Nawar Oliver said the latest developments in Khan Sheikhoun were likely linked to a "disagreement" between both signatories.

He said Turkey sending troops was likely due to "it not being ready for the security of its troops to be threatened, or for their destiny to become at the mercy of the regime and Russia".

It could also be a "Turkish decision to protect Khan Sheikhoun", said the expert at the Turkey-based Omran Centre for Strategic Studies.

Since late April, the regime and Russia have upped their bombardment of the Idlib region, killing more than 860 civilians.

More than 400,000 people have fled their homes and dozens of health centres have been targeted, the United Nations said.

Jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, controls most of Idlib province as well as parts of the neighbouring provinces of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia.

Syria's war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.

Re: Why does the battle for Idlib matter?

PostPosted: Tue Aug 20, 2019 10:24 pm
Author: Anthea
Syrian rebels forced from key stronghold

Syrian opposition forces have withdrawn from the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun, deep in the last rebel-held province

Government forces, backed by Russia, closed in on the town in recent weeks, five years after rebels took over.

Rebels told the BBC that fighters pulled out of the town on Tuesday.

But an official statement from the main jihadist group in Idlib province, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), characterised it as a "redeployment" of forces.

The fate of the town seemed to be in flux on Tuesday, as the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported it had fallen to government forces.

But then HTS issued a statement saying it had redeployed its fighters in the town after coming under a major bombardment.

Khan Sheikhoun has long been a flashpoint in Syria's civil war.

It was the site of a chemical weapons attack in 2017, which UN experts blamed on Syria. The incident prompted military strikes by the United States.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionSyria chemical attacks: How one man lost his family in Khan Sheikhoun

The conflict in Syria has been going on for more than eight years.

Khan Sheikhoun is a strategically significant battleground in Idlib province. It lies along the Damascus-Aleppo road, which connects the two largest cities and runs through rebel-held territory.

An important rebel supply route

In this case, the main gain for President Assad is that Khan Sheikhoun lies along the M5 road, which is the main economic artery through Syria from north to south, linking Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. Securing the motorway in its entirety is a major goal of the government offensive.

By the same token, taking Khan Sheikhoun could help cut off an important rebel supply route. Losing Khan Sheikhoun would also be a blow to the prestige of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of jihadist and rebel factions, which has all but taken over Idlib.

Its main component is al-Qaeda's former affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The most effective fighting force on the rebel side, it remains designated a terrorist organisation by several countries, including the US - despite somewhat moderating its stance in recent years.

It's also faced opposition in Idlib itself by other rebel factions and civilian groups. But the estimated three million people in Idlib are unlikely to greet the fall of Khan Sheikhoun to with anything but trepidation.
Presentational grey line

The town has been the subject of a major offensive by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in recent months. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, and hundreds of thousands more driven from their homes.

Idlib province - along with parts of northern Hama and western Aleppo - make up the last strongholds of the armed opposition.
Map of Idlib province in Syria, with the multitude of different rebel groups listed and their relative territories shown geographically
Presentational white space

Last year, a deal struck between Russia and Turkey - who back opposing sides in the civil war - was supposed to create a "buffer zone" to protect civilians and limit a major government offensive.

However, government forces have escalated their attacks in recent months, nearly encircling Khan Sheikhoun and the surrounding territory.

On Monday, a Turkish convoy was hit by a government air strike - with Syria alleging the vehicles were on their way to reinforce Khan Sheikhoun.

Turkey issued a stern warning to Syria on Tuesday, saying the government should not "play with fire".

"We will do whatever it takes to secure our troops," foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.

His counterpart in Russia, Sergei Lavrov, said his country had military units "on the ground" in Idlib.

Russia joined the conflict in 2015 to support President Bashar al-Assad. Since then, the tide of war has turned firmly in his favour.

His government has reclaimed large amounts of territory and restored its control in much of the country - but is accused of war crimes by UN investigators and human rights groups."

The war in Syria: Five questions answered

How did the war start?

The country descended into war after President Bashar al-Assad's government used deadly force to crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, who took to the streets in March 2011 demanding political freedom.

Who is fighting who?

That's complicated: President Assad's regime is fighting rebel groups ranging from pro-democracy groups to jihadist extremists, while a number of foreign powers are providing support to various sides.

How many people have died?

It is not known exactly, as death tolls vary according to the source, but it is estimated to stand at more than 500,000 dead or missing.

How many refugees are there?

More than 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011, with another 6.6 million internally displaced, according to the United Nations.

What has happened to President Assad?

His position looked tenuous at one point during the eight year conflict, but thanks to international allies like Russia and Iran, President Assad has won back control of most of Syria, and has set his sights on Idlib.