President Bashar al-Assad’s assault in the northwest has been met with a painful rebel counterpunch that underlines Turkish resolve to keep the area out of his hands and shows why he will struggle to take back more of Syria by force. More than two months of Russian-backed operations in and around Idlib province have yielded little or nothing for Assad’s side. It marks a rare case of a military campaign that has not gone his way since Russia intervened in 2015. While resisting government attacks, the insurgents have managed to carve out small advances of their own, drawing on ample stocks of guided anti-tank missiles that opposition and diplomatic sources say have been supplied by Turkey. “They’re even targeting personnel with these missiles … it means they are comfortably supplied,” a rebel source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing rebel military capabilities. Turkey’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on reports that Ankara has stepped supplies of arms to rebels. With Turkey committed to the rebels, the battle for the northwest stands in stark contrast to a campaign in the southwest a year ago, when Western and Arab states stood by as Assad and his Russian- and Iranian-backed allies took the area. Despite Russian backing in the latest fighting, questions have arisen over whether Assad and his allies are entirely on the same page when it comes to the northwest, where Turkey has deployed forces in agreement with Russia and Iran.
“The first assessment is that a Russian-made missile … which was part of the air defence system that took place last night in the face of an air strike against Syria, completed its range and fell into our country after it missed,” Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister Kudret Ozersay said in a post on Facebook.
In a rare public acknowledgement of Israeli operations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he personally ordered the recent airstrikes against Syrian military positions. The Israeli premier made the provocative remarks on Sunday shortly after new air raids struck Syrian military positions in the southern region of Quneitra near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, killing three soldiers and wounding seven others. Israel claims it was responding to two rockets allegedly launched from Syria late Saturday, which caused no casualties. “We will not tolerate firing into our territory and will respond fiercely against any aggression against us,” Benjamin Netanyahu said. Hours after the Quneitra airstrikes, Israel launched missile attacks against the T-4 airbase near the western Syrian city of Homs, killing an army soldier and wounding two others. The Syrian air defense reportedly managed to successfully intercept a number of the missiles. The Israeli prime minister further threatened strikes against positions of Iranian military advisers in Syria, claiming that “anyone who tries to hurt us will be hurt far worse.” The Israeli air force has staged repeated air raids against Syrian military bases that it claims are used by Iranian military advisers. Iranian advisers are in Syria on the request of the country’s legitimate government to help the Syrian army in its fight against foreign-backed militants. Syria’s official SANA news agency said the recent Israeli airstrikes are an attempt to prop up terrorist groups based in western provinces of Hama and Idlib that have been suffering heavy defeats against Syrian government forces. “The
Ankara and Moscow are again facing an escalation of violence in Syria’s last rebel-held territory, a development that puts their cooperation to the test even as they support opposing sides in the eight-year war that has devastated Syria. An all-out offensive by Syrian government forces to capture Idlib in northwestern Syria from insurgents could unleash an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, for the area is home to 3 million people. Turkey, which is already hosting more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, is facing strong pressure from Syria, Iran and Russia to deliver on its pledge to control the armed rebel factions in Idlib. But Turkey also needs Russia to rein in Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevent a massive outflow of refugees and to keep Turkish soldiers on the ground safe. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin “have an incentive to cooperate and ensure that nobody’s interests are totally trampled,” says Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East program in American think-tank Foreign Policy Research Institute. In September, the two leaders brokered a cease-fire for Idlib in the Russian resort of Sochi, preventing a bloody onslaught, despite the fact that Russia has firmly backed Assad and Turkey supports opposition forces. Nine months later, the truce has failed. The agreement called for a 15-to-20 kilometer (9-to-12 mile) demilitarized zone free of insurgents and heavy weaponry and for two key highways crossing through Idlib to be reopened. The demilitarized zone has been breached and the highways are at the
Russian-backed Syrian government forces will be able to advance all the way to the Turkish border if they pierce rebel defences in the northwest, a top opposition official said, urging Turkey to do more to shield the area from a major attack. The month-long onslaught is the most serious escalation of the war between President Bashar al-Assad and his enemies since last summer. Syrian government air strikes and barrel bombing backed by Russian air power have uprooted around 250,000 people in the territory, the last significant rebel stronghold. Fawaz Hilal, head of the “Salvation Government” that runs Idlib province, expressed confidence that opposition fighters gathered in the Idlib region from all over Syria would be able resist the onslaught. “This ferocious attack is a bone-breaking battle. If the regime is able to break our defensive lines in northern Hama and southern Idlib it will not stop until it reaches the borders,” Hilal told Reuters in an interview. His government, backed by the powerful Tahrir al-Sham jihadist group, had called on its employees to help shoulder the “military burden” through building sandbag defences, manning front lines, financial support or any other help. “We are all concerned with repelling this attack,” he said. The bombardment has killed 229 civilians and injured 727 since April 28, according to The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), a U.S.-based medical NGO. Hilal spoke at his office in Idlib city, the provincial capital where life has continued as normal as the offensive has mostly
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and his Russian counterpart discussed ways to reduce tension in Syria’s Idlib province, the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Tuesday, after the biggest military escalation in northwest Syria in nearly a year. Russia has backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey has backed some rebels in Syria’s eight-year civil war, but they have recently worked together to try to contain fighting in the country’s northwest. That effort has been strained by the surge in violence in Syria’s last major insurgent stronghold in recent weeks. The offensive by the Syrian army and its allies, backed by Russia, has uprooted more than 150,000 people, the United Nations says, while rescue workers and civil defence officials say more than 120 civilians have been killed. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the attacks by Syrian forces a flagrant violation of a September ceasefire that had averted a government offensive. He said in a tweet on Tuesday it went counter to the spirit of Turkey’s efforts to work with Russia and Iran to reduce hostilities and casualties in Idlib and neighbouring areas. On Monday, rebels said they mounted a counterattack against government forces. A senior rebel commander said on Tuesday the offensive showed an array of rebel forces – from Turkey-backed rebels to jihadists – were still able to prevent the army from making major advances despite heavy air strikes. “We conducted this lighting offensive to show the Russians we are not easy prey and throw the