Shells hit Syria's Idlib as rebels brace for assault

Smoke coming out of buildings that caught fire after being reportedly hit by Russian air strikes in the rebel-held town of Muhambal, about 30km south-west of Idlib.
Smoke coming out of buildings that caught fire after being reportedly hit by Russian air strikes in the rebel-held town of Muhambal, about 30km south-west of Idlib.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIRUT • The Syrian military shelled the last stronghold of active rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad yesterday as a war monitor said insurgents blew up another bridge in anticipation of a government offensive.

Damascus, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has been preparing an assault to recover Idlib and adjacent areas of the north-west, and - along with Russia - resumed air strikes on Tuesday after weeks of lull.

Idlib's fate now appears likely to rest on the results of tomorrow's Teheran summit between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran - a meeting that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov yesterday said would make the situation "clearer".

Russia's Defence Ministry said Tuesday's air strikes had only targeted militants and not struck populated areas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) war monitor said the strikes killed 13 civilians, including children, but no fighters.

The ministry said it had targeted buildings used to store weapons and explosives, including a facility used to assemble explosive-packed drones that rebels have used to attack Russian planes stationed at Khmeimim air base.

Syrian state media and the British-based SOHR reported that pro-government forces focused their shelling overnight and yesterday on the western and southern edges of the rebel enclave.

The countryside around Jisr al-Shughour in the west of the enclave was also the main target for Tuesday's air strikes, said rescue workers, a rebel source and SOHR.

Turkey, which has a small military presence in observation posts it has erected along the front lines between rebels and government forces, reiterated its warnings against an offensive.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted by a Turkish newspaper as saying that an attack on Idlib would be "a serious massacre" and he hoped for a positive outcome from a summit with Russian and Iranian leaders on the matter tomorrow.

The prospect of an offensive in Idlib has alarmed humanitarian agencies. The United Nations (UN) has said displaced people already make up about half of the three million people living in rebel-held areas of the north-west.

Human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement yesterday that the lives of "millions of people in Idlib are now in the hands of Russia, Turkey and Iran", and urged all parties not to attack civilians.

Idlib's rebel factions are divided, with a hardline alliance that includes Al-Qaeda's former official Syrian affiliate holding most ground. The alliance, Tahrir al-Sham, has been designated a terrorist organisation by the UN. Several other factions in Idlib, including some that fought under the banner of the rebel Free Syrian Army, joined together this year to form a new alliance backed by Turkey.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2018, with the headline 'Shells hit Syria's Idlib as rebels brace for assault'. Print Edition | Subscribe