Russia resumes air strikes on Syria’s Idlib – war monitor

A war monitor says Russia resumed air strikes on the opposition and rebel-held Syrian province on Tuesday. The apparent attack came just hours after US President Donald Trump warned against reckless actions by Assad and his allies in the region.

Syrian rebels prepare for an expected regime offensive, in the countryside of the opposition and rebel-held northern Idlib province on September 3, 2018.
Syrian rebels prepare for an expected regime offensive, in the countryside of the opposition and rebel-held northern Idlib province on September 3, 2018. (AFP)

A Syrian war monitor said Russian air strikes had resumed against the opposition and rebels in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on Tuesday after several weeks.

At least three people have been killed on the onslaught and several others injured, according to the White Helmets.

Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad has sworn to recapture every inch of Syria and has made big gains against opposition and rebels since Russia joined his war effort in 2015.

Tuesday’s attacks, if confirmed, came just hours after US President Donald Trump warned Syria against launching a reckless attack on the country’s last opposition and rebel stronghold with the help of Russia and Iran, saying the offensive could trigger a “human tragedy.”

Turkey expresses discomfort at YPG presence to US

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar held a closed-door meeting with US Special Envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, in capital Ankara on Tuesday.

Akar expressed Turkey’s discomfort at the YPG/PKK presence in Syria.

He also conveyed Turkey’s intention to continue protecting its security and regional interests in accordance with international law, as well as the need to completely rid the region of the terrorist organisation.

TRT World‘s Andrew Hopkins brings more from the capital Ankara.

Iran says trying to remove militants

Regime-backer Iran says it’s making efforts to remove militants from the region with the least human cost, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Tuesday.

“The situation in Idlib is sensitive,” Zarif told state TV. 

“Our efforts are for … the exit of terrorists from Idlib to be carried out with the least human cost.”

UN sees ‘moment of truth’ for Syria political process

UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura told reporters that talks between major powers this month on setting up a committee to lead constitutional reform in Syria will be a “moment of truth” for a credible political process.

De Mistura will hold separate sets of talks next week, one involving Russia, Turkey and Iran, and the other including the United States and Saudi Arabia, to discuss the makeup of the committee.

He said it must not be allowed to become a “long, winding process about the process” but could be the entry point into Syrian regime reforms leading to elections after the war. 

Prelude to regime assault?

Last week, a source close to the regime said Damascus was preparing a phased offensive to recover Idlib province, but Turkey, whose army has a string of observation posts around the edge of the opposition and rebel area, has warned against such an assault.

Russian air raids ceased in and around Idlib on August 15, but regime forces and their allies have continued shelling rebel positions there, the war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), said.

The SOHR said the air strikes were in the countryside near Jisr Al Shughour on the western edge of the rebels’ northwestern territory.

Turkish, Russian and Iranian leaders are due to meet on September 7 in Iran and are expected to discuss the situation in northwestern Syria.

Zarif met with Assad in a surprise visit to Damascus on Monday ahead of the expected offensive.

Trump’s tweet

“President Bashar al Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy,” Trump tweeted.

“Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!”

The United Nations and aid groups have warned that a full assault on Idlib could spark a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale not yet seen in Syria’s seven-year-old conflict.

But Russia and Iran have insisted that extremist groups in Idlib must be defeated and are expected to back regime forces in any assault.

TRT World’s Reagan Des Vignes has more.

Former de-escalation zone

Since early 2017, Iran, fellow regime ally Russia and opposition backer Turkey have sponsored the negotiations track based in the Kazakh capital to tamp down hostilities in Syria.

Last year, they had designated Idlib as a “de-escalation” zone where violence would halt in preparation for a countrywide ceasefire.

Damascus’s main sponsor Russia has been sounding the war drums in recent days, all the while seeking to pressure Turkey-backed groups in Idlib.

Tehran and Moscow have provided steady political, financial and military backing to Assad throughout the war, which has left over 350,000 people dead since it broke out in 2011.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said an all-out assault on Idlib and its catastrophic consequences could still be avoided.

ICG said Russia, whose air support would be crucial for the offensive to succeed, should understand that a bloodbath in Idlib would jeopardise its own political goals.

“By backing an all-out offensive, Russia risks undermining its long-term political objectives in Syria,” ICG wrote in a nine-page briefing.

“Russia seeks to ensure not just the regime’s military victory in Syria but its full political restoration through international re-legitimation at war’s end.”

Further Iranian engagement in Syria meanwhile risks drawing Israel deeper into the conflict.

A series of recent strikes in Syria that have killed Iranians has been attributed to Israel.

But Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Monday signalled strikes could be extended to Iraq if necessary.

Asked about the possibility of Israel hitting Iranian military positions in “Iraq or Tehran,” Lieberman said: “We do not limit ourselves to Syrian territory alone. It must be clear.”

US warnings ring hollow?

Britain, France and the US, which together launched limited attacks on Syrian installations in mid-April in retaliation for an alleged Syrian chemical attack, say their red line against illegal weapon use remains in force.

But analysts still say the United States appears resigned to the likelihood of a final military victory by Syrian regime forces.

TRT World’s Kevin McAleese has more from Washington DC.

Behind the scenes, American diplomats have been actively warning Moscow, which has been accused in the past of turning a blind eye to chemical weapon use by its Syrian proteges.

But these “verbal warning shots” have little to do with today’s reality in Syria, said Jonas Parello-Plesner, a researcher with the Hudson Institute in Washington who recently published a study on the US approach to the region.

And that reality, he told AFP, is that “Assad is advancing on the ground, aided by Iran by land and Russia by air,” while the United States places its hopes on a UN-backed Geneva peace process that might best be described as “moribund.”

Trump said in April that “it’s time” to bring American troops home from Syria – once the militants of the Daesh group had been definitively defeated.

While he quickly backed away from talk of an immediate withdrawal, his underlying determination to leave Syria’s seven-year war as soon as possible seems unchanged.

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