Russian airstrikes have been reported in northwest Syria, targeting the last major rebel-held territory in the region. These strikes mark a departure from a ceasefire that came into effect in March concerning the region. As such, the air raids were the first to have occurred in three months. While no casualties were reported, the re-escalation of conflict in the northwest highlights that any prospect for peace in the foreseeable future regarding the Syrian conflict is slim.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the airstrikes arrived in waves between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. The strikes followed bombardments from forces of the Syrian government. Hadi Abdullah, the Telegraph’s point of contact in Idlib, stated that the airstrikes targeted both a mountainous area in the province of Lataika, in close proximity to Idlib, and a power station in the province of Hama. The strikes are reported as having forced hundreds of people to flee their homes, searching for safety further North, towards the Turkish border.
The Syrian Civil Defence- widely known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue operation, issued a statement regarding the airstrikes on Twitter. It confirmed the occurrence of the raids, stating: “Intense airstrikes by Russian warplanes are the first since the cease-fire decision that was decided last March. It targeted Sahl al-Ghab of western Hama at dawn today. Our White Helmets extinguished fire near the place and ensured there were no injuries.”
The ceasefire agreement was brokered by Turkey- a supporter of the rebel groups- and Russia, a firm ally to the Syrian regime. The commencement of the ceasefire brought a temporary period of calm to the region of northwest Syria, which had been the location of increasingly escalating conflict. Prior to the ceasefire, a brutal four-month offensive in the province of Idlib was launched by the Assad regime and backed by Russian forces in an attempt to take the last rebel-held territory of the country.
According to the United Nations, this offensive led to what may be perceived as the worst humanitarian crisis of the conflict to date. It led to the deaths of 500 civilians and simultaneously forced almost one million people to flee their homes. A large proportion of those displaced ended up in hugely overcrowded refugee camps next to the border with Turkey. The United Nations estimates that at least 840,000 remain displaced today.
The province of Idlib is under the control of rebel groups such as Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is a former affiliate of al-Qaeda. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the latest airstrikes had the aim of pushing the rebel groups away from a key location in northern Syria, the M4 highway. Joint patrols are conducted around this area by Turkish and Russian forces, as part of the ceasefire agreement.
Humanitarian organisations have emphasised that the re-escalation of conflict could have a catastrophic impact, especially in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. To prevent the humanitarian situation in the region from deteriorating further, it is imperative that all sides to the conflict respect the existing ceasefire agreement.
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