The number of Russian civilians travelling to Syria, where Moscow is running a military operation in support of President Bashar al-Assad, reached record levels this year, according to official figures published by a Russian security service. The number of Russian civilian trips to Syria grew after President Vladimir Putin announced a partial withdrawal of troops last December, an increase apparently indicating an expansion of Moscow’s activities in the country.
Chased out of their own homelands and targeted in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, experienced foreign jihadists embraced Syria’s war as their own starting around 2013, two years into the conflict.
Many joined the Islamic State group but others stuck by Al-Qaeda and its former Syrian affiliate — which now leads the powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance dominating Idlib.
The former US Secretary of State, John Kerry, writes in his soon-to-be-published memoirs that when he was head of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2010 he met with Bashar al-Assad and received a “personal message” from him to US President, Barack Obama, that included his readiness to fully recognize Israel and to open embassies in Damascus and Tel Aviv.
Russian and Syrian warplanes pounded towns in Syria’s opposition-held Idlib province on Saturday, a day after a summit of the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia failed to agree on a ceasefire that would forestall a Russian-backed offensive. Witnesses and rescuers said at least a dozen air strikes hit a string of villages and towns in southern Idlib and the town of Latamneh in northern Hama, where rebels are still in control.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called for a ceasefire in the rebel-held region of Idlib in northwest Syria on Friday and said an anticipated government assault on insurgents there could result in a massacre. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said Moscow opposed a truce, and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.
Early in the conflict, fighting splintered Syria into a complex patchwork of areas held by rival groups, but fighting in recent years has simplified the frontlines and the country is now split into only a few zones of control. At its weakest point in 2015, the President Bashar al-Assad’s government held less than a fifth of Syria. But since Russia entered the war on its side, it has reclaimed huge swathes of Syria.