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Long-expected battle for Idlib may have begun

Backed by massive Russian air power, the Syrian regime has launched what may be the start of a long-feared offensive to retake opposition-held northern Hama and Idlib, in which an estimated 3 million inhabitants and civilians displaced from other areas are trapped.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Syrian regime and allied forces took the key town of Kfar Nabudah from opposition fighters in southern Idlib on May 8 after gaining, losing and then regaining a village and a strategic hill in northern Hama two days before.

The taking of the town, known as a gateway to the rest of southern Idlib, seems to have marked the start of a major ground offensive.

Opposition fighters from the formerly al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the rival coalition formed in early 2018 from several Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions — the National Liberation Front — have been working alongside one another to repel regime attacks.

However, on May 9 the regime and its allies reportedly entered three areas in western Hama without fighting after the withdrawal of opposition fighters.

Heavy Russian airpower had intensified airstrikes mainly on northern Hama and southern Idlib in the week prior to the advance, destroying several medical facilities, initially in a tactic frequently used throughout the conflict to induce civilians to flee.

Mahmoud al-Mahmoud, a former regime officer and now spokesman for the opposition's Jaish al-Azza, one of the major National Liberation Front factions, told Al-Monitor from northern Hama in a Whatsapp chat that the regime was engaging in “scorched earth” tactics, destroying entirely the villages it managed to retake.

Across the border in Turkey, Majd Khalf, a member of the Syrian Civil Defense originally from the Idlib town of Jisr al-Shughour, was much thinner — “from stress” he said — on May 7 than he had been in previous meetings with Al-Monitor over the past four years. Al-Monitor first met him in 2014 during barrel bomb attacks in opposition-held Aleppo.

He had crossed in from Syria for meetings the previous day.

“In all these years this is the first time I thought, when crossing, that I might never have the chance to go back. This time, there were not only one or two planes in the sky,” he said, or just the double-tap strikes that they have become used to: aircraft striking a heavily populated area or medical facility and then circling back to hit rescue workers.

“There were 10 aircraft at once” this time and “they were targeting civilians fleeing en masse toward the Turkish border, on the roads,” he said. “It's terrible.”

At least 150,000 people have fled toward the already overcrowded camps along the Turkish border and many people are simply sleeping in the open air, terrified.

Idlib had an estimated population of approximately 1.5 million in 2011; but several waves of forcibly displaced and internally displaced persons have swelled it to an estimated over 3 million.

There has been virtually no international media inside the province since early 2015, when the Turkish authorities closed the border to journalists. Exceptional authorization has occasionally been granted, but mainly only for short reporting trips by Turkish state broadcaster TRT.

Independent documentation is thus exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

The UN stopped counting deaths in the country in mid-2013.

Heavy regime and Russian reliance on indiscriminate weapons brought condemnation from the UN on May 2, which said the “barrel bombing [in northwestern Syria] is the worst we have seen for at least 15 months.”

The Syrian medical relief organization, UOSSM, said May 8 that 13 medical facilities had been targeted in 11 days by the regime and its allies in the first week of May, including some that had shared their coordinates with the UN in an attempt to prevent such attacks.

Raed Allawi, a commander from the 2nd Army, which is part of the National Liberation Front, told Al-Monitor in a series of Whatsapp conversations over several days — initially from northern Hama and then southern Idlib after regime advances — that civilians had “fled from the bombing before the regime entered the towns” and sent photos of some of his fighters killed in the battle.

Al-Monitor had previously interviewed Allawi in early 2018, when his group had been fighting against both the regime and Islamic State cells in Hama.

Labib al-Nahhas, the head of the political bureau of the armed opposition group Ahrar al-Sham, indicated in a series of tweets May 6 that the military escalation was part of a Russian plan, saying, “Russia is an enemy and not a partner or guarantor.” Some think the plan involves an attempt take two major highways in the province. 

The minimal participation of Iranian-backed militias of foreign origin in the fighting also hints at the offensive being Russia-directed.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin claimed May 9 that Russia was “reacting along with government forces in response to terrorist attacks” in Idlib and that “we are doing all this in coordination with the Turkish side.”

Turkey and Russia had agreed in September to set up a demilitarized 15- to 20-kilometer (9- to 12-mile) buffer zone between opposition-held areas and regime-held ones, monitored “by mobile patrol groups of Turkish units and units of Russian military police.”

Initially hit especially hard was opposition-held northern Hama and Qalaat al-Madiq, known for its medieval fortress prior to the war and for being a “place of exchange for prisoners and people going between regime-held areas and opposition-held ones” since 2011, Syrian Civil Defense rescue worker Ammar al-Salmo told Al-Monitor in an interview May 7.

He added that the town had been relatively peaceful in recent years.

About four months ago, however, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham had gained control over the area for the first time despite resistance from local National Liberation Front factions, Allawi told Al-Monitor.

The opposition-held province of Idlib, north of Hama, is militarily dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham despite frequent protests from civilians during times of relative calm.

Locals say that the vast majority of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters in northern Hama are Syrians and that the local Hayat Tahrir al-Sham commander is a man nicknamed Abu Youssef from the town of Halfaya.

Al-Monitor had interviewed several FSA commanders from northern Hama in previous years, including defected officer Col. Jamil Radoon shortly before he was assassinated in southern Turkey in August 2015.

Several Syrians close to him had told Al-Monitor at that time they believed he had been killed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's previous incarnation, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Qalaat al-Madiq was taken by the regime May 9.

A widely shared video shows regime soldiers, concrete wreckage behind and cola bottles in hand, laughing inside the just-taken town of Kfar Nabudah, boasting that “there will be no green buses this time” and that Idlib residents will be “buried under their homes.”

The reference was to buses used to transport people out of besieged areas in deals made between the opposition and the regime in areas such as eastern Aleppo and Ghouta.

The implication is that the over 3 million inhabitants and displaced in the province now have nowhere else to go.

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