Syrian opposition says it won’t accept Russian soldiers in demilitarized area

A few days after the 12th round of Astana peace talks on Syria, the Syrian government and Russia resume heavy shelling in Idlib.

al-monitor A general view shows the destruction in the village of Kansafrah following reported shelling on the rebel-held Idlib province, May 8, 2019. Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images.

May 10, 2019

ALEPPO, Syria — Violent battles broke out May 6 between Syrian government forces and their allies and the Syrian armed opposition south of Idlib. The regime’s forces tried to advance into opposition-held areas with the support of Russian aircraft, artillery and rockets that hit opposition areas.

Government troops took control of the village of Janabera and the strategic hill known as Tel Osman. The opposition factions counterattacked in a bid to regain their positions.

Fighting between the two sides continued through May 7 in the Hama countryside, where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham announced that it had taken back Tel Osman and killed more than 30 regime soldiers.

On May 8, the government's forces were able to retake control of Tel Osman and continued marching toward the town of Kafarnabuda, which they also took control of after fierce battles with the opposition factions.

The fighting continues to rage on; the regime was advancing May 9 toward al-Habit town near Kafarnabuda, while escalating strikes on opposition-held areas in Idlib and in the Hama countryside.

“We were able to confront the regime forces, causing great losses in their ranks. The battles in the Hama countryside are ongoing and we already sent more military reinforcement to the fronts to deal with any attack. We also fired rockets on the regime locations and camps in the area,” National Liberation Front spokesman Capt. Naji Abu Hudeifa told Al-Monitor.

“The regime and its allies, Russian and Iran, are responsible for the brutal bombardment of areas in the south of Idlib province and for the death of dozens of innocent civilians, as well as the displacement of tens of thousands of people from their homes. We will not stand idly by and we will resist these brutal attacks,” he added.

On May 7, Russian aircraft carried out dozens of airstrikes in Idlib and the Hama countryside, killing several civilians, including women and children.

These field developments took place almost two weeks after the regime escalated its shelling south of Idlib and in the Hama countryside, killing many civilians and causing tens of thousands to flee to the camps north of Idlib near the Syrian-Turkish border. Some are still sleeping in the open under trees and living in dire humanitarian conditions.

According to a May 6 report by the Humanitarian Response Coordinator, a charity in northern Syria, the number of displaced reached 103,539 people, which constitute 16,619 families, who fled the areas within a week as a result of the bombing by the Syrian regime and Russia.

Col. Mostafa Bakkour, the commander of Jaysh al-Izza, a faction affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told Al-Monitor, “The intensified bombardment on the part of the Syrian regime and Russia has caused the destruction of a large number of hospitals, causing them to stop operating. The Free Health Directorate in Idlib province announced May 6 an emergency state in all hospitals in the province after four hospitals were destroyed.”

Due to the heavy shelling, Friday prayers were canceled in several mosques in the Idlib countryside, Bakkour said.

The regime began intensifying its air and artillery campaign in opposition-held areas April 26, one day after the conclusion of the 12th round of the Astana peace talks that took place in Nursultan, the newly renamed capital of Kazakhstan, between Russia, Turkey and Iran, the three guarantor states. Idlib was one of the most important issues on the agenda.

“It seems that the regime decided to escalate attacks after the end of talks due to a disagreement between the different guarantor states during the peace talks. This would certainly be reflected on the ground. Russia wants to make gains by force,” Bakkour said.

As the fighting flared up, more military forces and weapons were mobilized on the fronts from both sides. The Syrian opposition has been carrying out attacks against regime sites, killing several soldiers. The FSA-affiliated National Liberation Front intensified its bombardment of locations occupied by the Syrian regime and Russian forces in the Hama countryside. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham also fired Grad surface-to-surface missiles targeting the Khmeimim air base, which is operated by Russia, near Latakia.

Some opposition factions, such as Jaysh al-Izza and the National Liberation Front, believe that the intensified strikes on the buffer zone aim to vacate the area and drive people out as a prelude to government forces taking control of the area. Other factions believe that the military escalation is the result of the disputes between Ankara and Moscow.

Yahya Mayo, a media activist, told Al-Monitor that the final communique of the 12th round emphasized the need to implement agreements for coordinated Russian-Turkish patrols in the demilitarized zone starting at the beginning of May.

The Syrian opposition still did not approve of this.

Jaysh al-Izza closed some roads April 29 in the countryside of Hama in protest of the agreement. Several local councils in Idlib and some other councils in the western Aleppo countryside also expressed their rejection of Russian patrols, which prompted the shelling escalation, Mayo said.

Mustafa Abu Hudeifa, a National Liberation Front spokesman, told Al-Monitor that his group “refuses to see any Russian soldier in the demilitarized area, [we] only [accept] Turkish troops, which in fact started conducting patrols on March 8."

Mustafa Sejari, director of the politburo for the FSA-affiliated al-Moaatsem Brigade, told Al-Monitor, “Idlib has turned into a battlefield for political intrigue. The Russian aggression on the area is the result of disagreements. Russians want to take advantage of the international and Arab position rejecting the Turkish presence in Syria in a bid to pressure Ankara into participating in the ridiculous political play according to the Russian vision, seeking to reproduce the Syrian regime in Syria.”

“This is the main reason for the heavy shelling and the violent battles between the opposition and the regime. This is likely to drag on in the future if Russia does not get what it wants,” Sejari said.

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