IDLIB, Syria — Leaders of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) told Al-Monitor that a ballistic missile, launched from the Russian Khmeimim base in Latakia on March 21, landed near the Atma camp in the town of Qah, in Idlib province along the border with Turkey. The airstrike, which was seen by civilian eyewitnesses who spoke to Al-Monitor, killed livestock and injured a shepherd, who later died from his injuries.
The FSA sources said that Russian warplanes also launched a series of missiles that targeted the old customs office at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, commercial shipping carriers and a factory for manufacturing household gas canisters. The airstrikes caused a huge fire, which burnt nearby cars and killed a civilian, they said.
Hours before the Russian airstrikes March 21, Syrian government forces bombed al-Maghara Hospital in the city of Atarib in the western countryside of Aleppo, killing and injuring several civilians and rendering the hospital out of service.
Sources in the Idlib Health Directorate told Al-Monitor that the regime's bombing of the hospital killed seven civilians and injured 13 others. Among the injured, the sources noted, was the director of health in the opposition-held areas in the countryside of Aleppo, Nawar Kurdiya, who lost an eye.
The Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, tweeted March 21 that the Syrian regime forces targeted the hospital with several artillery shells, which also caused material damage, forcing the hospital to halt its operations.
Capt. Naji Abu Hudeifa, spokesman for the FSA-affiliated National Liberation Front who resides in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “Such bombings and artillery shelling have always been carried out and the regime forces are constantly trying to infiltrate Al-Ghab Plain and Jabal al-Zawiya areas. We always respond to these breaches by the Syrian and Russian forces; after the massacre that the regime committed at the Atarib hospital, we bombed the regime’s posts in the contact areas between us in the countryside of Aleppo and the countryside of Idlib.”
Abdel Salam Abdel Razzaq, military analyst and FSA leader in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “The Russian bombing of vital facilities comes as a response to the suffocating siege [imposed on the regime] and the fact that the opposition and the Syrian Democratic Forces are not allowing oil materials to enter regime-controlled areas. I do not believe the Russian bombing was in response to Turkey targeting regime-held areas in Tal Rifaat or its bombing of Ain Issa. The regime could wage some battles against the opposition to break this no peace/no war standoff and alleviate the buildup tension in the regime-controlled areas.”
Taqi al-Din Omar, head of the media relations office in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), told Al-Monitor, “The calm prevailing in the area is often disturbed by the Russian bombings, turning it into a place of war and destruction. Idlib is threatened by Russia, Iranian militias and the Syrian regime forces; they only seek to impose control over what is left of northwestern Syria. Consequently, the revolutionary factions represented in Al-Fatah Al-Mubin [Great Conquest] operations room are taking full precautions for any emergency that might come up.”
The official from HTS, which controls Idlib and is considered a terrorist organization by the United Nations and the United States, said that the escalation by Damascus would be met with "targeting the sources of fire and striking the movements of the enemy."
He added, "[Several regime] sites in southern Idlib and western Aleppo — responsible for the recent Atarib hospital massacre — were targeted. Everyone is to blame; the Syrian revolution has exerted a lot of effort, and its cause is just, which requires everyone regionally and internationally to stand with the Syrian people.”
Muhannad Darwish, a journalist residing in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “There are two reasons for the Russian escalation. The first is an attempt to calm the street loyal to the Syrian regime in light of the suffocating crisis that the regime areas are exposed to. Russia is saying to Bashar al-Assad’s supporters that although they are suffering under an economic crisis, what is happening has nothing to do with the regime. The opposition that is keeping the oil for itself is the only one to blame. The second is a message to Turkey, to reiterate that no treaties or agreements are valid; any and every agreement can be terminated in an instant.”
Darwish added, “Russia’s targeting of oil and gas centers will increase the civilians’ suffering, and this is part of Russia's policy to bring the Syrian people to their knees through starvation and siege. Everyone knows that the entire fuel file in the Idlib area — in addition to other files — has become quite profitable for the Watad Petroleum company [an Idlib-based company affiliated with HTS] and some other companies that have a monopoly over the fuel in that area.”