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Opposition factions in Idlib prepare for imminent Syrian government offensive

After Turkey withdrew from observation posts within regime-controlled areas, Syria and Russia stepped up their attacks in Idlib, raising fears of an imminent battle.
Smoke rises during a reported air strike by Russian forces targetting the outskirts of the town of Al-Bara, in the southern countryside of the rebel-held Idlib province, on November 13, 2020. (Photo by Mohammed AL-RIFAI / AFP) (Photo by MOHAMMED AL-RIFAI/AFP via Getty Images)

IDLIB, Syria — Russian airstrikes accompanied by Syrian regime-led bombardment have escalated in some areas of the northwest province of Idib since early November, despite the cease-fire agreement signed between Russia and Turkey in March.

The escalation coincided with Turkey's withdrawal from some of its observation posts in regime-controlled areas in Syria, while at the same time boosting its military presence by deploying several military convoys to different areas of Idlib.

Over the past few days, various opposition armed factions have targeted regime posts in the southern and eastern countrysides of Idlib, killing a number of Syrian army soldiers and Russian soldiers.

The opposition’s attack followed statements Nov. 2 by the deputy head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Parties at the Khmeimim air base in Latakia, Col. Alexander Grinkevich, who said that militants are planning to carry out bombings in the Idlib area to retaliate against the Syrian army targeting populated areas.

“According to available information the militants are planning to use an unmanned aerial vehicle to strike at civilian infrastructure in the area of ​​the Nakhlaya settlement. The militants intend to post a video recording of the consequences of the staged strike on their propaganda resources on the internet, accusing the Syrian government forces and the Russian Aerospace Forces,” Grinkevich said.

Meanwhile, the Russian bombing targeted the towns and villages of Abedeta, al-Bara and Ehsim in the Jabal Zawiya area in southern Idlib.

The Response Coordination Group, a humanitarian nongovernmental organization working in Idlib, documented violations by the Syrian regime and Russia between Oct. 1 and Nov. 8, recording 314 ground targets, five airstrikes and four drone strikes, and reporting about 25 civilian casualties, which include 12 men, two women, seven children and four humanitarian workers. 

The group also documented the targeting of facilities and infrastructure, including educational facilities, popular markets, civil defense centers and service facilities.

On Oct. 26, Russia targeted a camp for the Sham Legion, which is close to Turkey, killing dozens of its members. 

Brig. Gen. Ahmad Rahhal, a military and strategic analyst and commander who defected from the Syrian regime’s army and joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), currently residing in Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “The Russians in Syria have announced since [their intervention in the war in 2015] that they will place all areas under Bashar al-Assad’s control again. This is Russia’s broad objective.”

He said, “We have seen the [Russians] take control of large areas that were held by the Syrian opposition; they [Russians] are now gradually working to control the remaining areas under the opposition’s control, and their current goal is to capture the strategic city of Arihah and to make the M4 highway the separating line with Turkey and the opposition. This means they are planning to take control of Jabal Zawiya, Jabal al-Arbaeen and Jabal Shashabo.”

Rahhal noted, “[The Russians] might exploit the US’ preoccupation with the presidential elections and continue the targeting of the areas of Sarjah and Arihah. They do not want to storm Jabal Zawiya directly, so they will try to circumvent it from Maarat al-Numan to Jabal Arbaeen in Arihah, connect it with Saraqib, then reach the city of Muhambal, and thus control the M4 highway.”

He added, “The repeated Russian bombings are a prelude to waging a battle in the M4 axes. The current Russian-Turkish dispute broke out after Russia [reportedly] asked Turkey to withdraw from its posts [in Morek and Sher Maghar] north of the M4 highway. But instead Turkey set up new posts [including in Qawqafin] south of the M4 highway and boosted its military presence elsewhere, which angered Russia. Besides, the Turks asked [according to information obtained by opposition circles in Idlib] the Russians to pressure the regime to stop its violations, but Russia rejected the demand.”

Capt. Naji Abu Hudeifa, spokesman for the National Liberation Front affiliated with the FSA, told Al-Monitor, “This escalation is old news. Russia has always targeted these areas despite the cease-fire agreement. It has not abided by this agreement and is trying to sabotage it. We — as revolutionary factions — respond to these violations, and this is our right because we are being attacked by the regime and Russia. We are preparing for the possibility of an upcoming battle that the regime may wage with Russia’s support.”

Abu Khaled al-Shami, military spokesman for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, told Al-Monitor, “Russia and the regime almost bomb the area daily, targeting populated areas [with the aim to] force the rebellious people to succumb. They targeted Idlib and Arihah a few days ago, killing innocent children who were on their way to school. It is no more than revenge against the innocents who refused to live under Assad’s control, and the Syrian regime classifies civilians in the areas under [the opposition’s control] as terrorists.”

Shami said, “We are conducting military preparations daily and studying all possible scenarios.”

He concluded that the Syrian regime continues to send military reinforcements to the Idlib fronts despite the war it is currently waging against the Islamic State in eastern Syria. “Several civilians have also signed one-year contracts to fight with the Assad militias in return for a salary,” Shami added.

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