Russia and the Assad regime have resumed attacks on opposition-held northwest Syria, breaking a four-day pause declared by Damascus. Russian and regime forces, whose spring offensive shattered a "demilitarized zone" announced last September by Moscow and Turkey, again began bombing and shelling both rebel positions and civilian areas Aug. 5. The regime's military said four days earlier that it was halting operations, which have killed more than 700 civilians and wounded more than 2,200 since late April, while it gave an ultimatum to anti-Assad forces to withdraw from the 20-kilometer "demilitarized zone" through Idlib and northern Hama province. As the new air-strikes were launched, an army statement said: "The agreement to a truce was conditional... This did not happen... We resume our military operations against terrorist organizations."
The Assad regime and allied militias, backed by Russian air-strikes, this week launched the long-feared offensive on Idlib, the northwest Syrian province that is the last under rebel and opposition control. The offensive places at risk the lives of more than 4.5 million civilians. Just this month, a further 150,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in Idlib, joining the ranks the displaced. The UN has previously warned that an assault on Idlib could cause "the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century." At particular risk are 350,000 people living in displacement camps, who have no protection from the bombs. The more recently displaced are now without any shelter on lands near the Turkish border, which Ankara has shut to prevent a refugee influx.
Syria's last opposition-controlled province of Idlib has receded from the headlines since a joint Russian-Turkish deal was announced last September, forestalling an Assad regime offensive on the province and establishing a "demilitarized zone" policed by the two foreign powers. But shelling and bombardment of the province by Assadist and Russian forces has escalated over the past month—and much of the shells and missiles are falling within the "demilitarized zone." Most recently, five civilians were injured April 14 in a regime air-strike on the Idlib villages of Urum al-Jawz and Bsanqul and Jabal al-Arabaeen, outside the town of Ari, within the demilitarized zone. UN Senior Humanitarian Advisor for Syria Najat Rochdi told reporters in Geneva last week that over 100,000 Idlib residents have fled their homes since February as a result of increased fighting. More than 90 civilians, half of them children, were killed in the province in March. As ever, medical facilities and schools continue to be targeted.
We've already noted the strange bedfellows in the Rojava Kurds' political push to forestalll a US withdrawal from northern Syria, which would be a green light for Turkey to attack their autonomous zone. Well, they just got a little stranger with the arrival in Washington last month of Ilham Ahmed, co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, civilian wing of the Kurdish-led US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. She and her delegation actually met with Trump at the Trump International Hotel after they touched down Jan. 29. The prez reportedly told the group "I love the Kurds," and promised that they are "not going to be killed" by Turkish forces. (Al Monitor) Making it even more surreal, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, best friend of fascist dictator Bashar Assad on Capitol Hill, brought Ahmed to the State of the Union address on Feb. 5 as her special guest. Gabbard tweeted about it, and the Turkish newspaper Takvim ran a photo of Ahmed standing beside Trump at the SOTU. We wonder if Ahmed, who represents a radical-left Kurdish revolutionary movement that is influenced by anarchism, is aware that the presidential bid of her host Gabbard has been endorsed by David Duke—who shares Tulsi's fondness for Assad.
Assad regime artillery struck areas of Syria's opposition-held Idlib province Jan. 12 after militants allegedly tried to infiltrate regime-held areas, according to state news agency SANA. The shelling was reportedly focused on the town of Tamanaa near Maaret al-Numan, which was seized from Turkish-backed rebels by jihadist forces earlier in the week. The was apparently part of a ceasefire agreement ending an internal conflict between rival opposition forces in Idlib. Much of the governorate's territory was reportedly turned over to the so-called "Salvation Government"—administrative arm of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor organization to disbanded al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front. Constituent militias of the rival Turkish-backed National Liberation Front have reportedly retreated to the Turkish-held enclave of Afrin across the border in Aleppo governorate. (Rudaw, AFP) These ominous developments may spell an end to Idlib's reprieve from the threatened Assad offensiive on the province since establishment of a joint Turkish-Russian buffer zone there.
In Episode 23 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg notes the assassination of Raed Fares, a courageous voice of the civil resistance in besieged Idlib province, last remaining stronghold of the Syrian Revolution. The resistance in Idlib, which liberated the territory from the Bashar Assad regime in popular uprisings seven years ago, is now also resisting the jihadist forces in the province, expelling them from their self-governing towns and villages. Their hard-won zones of popular democracy face extermination if this last stronghold is invaded by Assad and his Russian backers. As Assad and Putin threaten Idlib, Trump's announced withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops embedded with Kurdish forces in Syria's northeast is a "green light" to Turkey to attack Rojava, the anarchist-inspired Kurdish autonomous zone. The two last pockets of democratic self-rule in Syria are each now gravely threatened. Yet with Turkey posing as protector of Idlib, the Arab revolutionary forces there have been pitted against the Kurds. The Free Syrian Army and Rojava Kurds were briefly allied against ISIS and Assad alike four years ago, before they were played against each other by imperial intrigues. Can this alliance be rebuilt, in repudiation of the foreign powers now seeking to carve up Syria? Or will the US withdrawal merely spark an Arab-Kurdish ethnic war in northern Syria? Weinberg calls for activists in the West to repudiate imperial divide-and-rule stratagems, and demand the survival of liberated Idlib and Rojava alike. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.
The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic on Nov. 28 stressed the need for greater information and accountability to be provided to the families of missing persons and detainees. The report begins by noting that the Syrian government is still carrying out mass public arrests and detentions. These detentions have led to the torture and eventual death of a number of individuals, while their families were induced to pay bribes to learn their whereabouts. The report goes on to say that many families did not learn of their relatives' whereabouts at all until May 2018 when information was provided in bulk by the Ministry of Interior. The Commission notes that even after this information was disclosed it was obfuscated, with causes of death being listed as "heart attack" or "stroke"—while many individuals died on the same day. The Commission infers that mass executions may have occurred in some of these facilities, particularly as so many of them are on military bases.
The "buffer zone" through Syria's northern Idlib province, negotiated by Russia and Turkey to forestall an Assad regime offensive on the opposition-held portion of the province, officially takes effect this week. Rebels began withdrawing heavy weapons from the zone at the start of the month, but said that fighters are remaining. Fighters from designated "radical terrorist groups"—primarily Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—are supposed to withdraw entirely from the zone. HTS initially said it would comply on a "de facto" basis, but the zone is being implemented despite the fact that a deadline has been missed for withdrawal of all its fighters. The zone, some 20 kilometers wide, stretches from Latakia to Aleppo, through Idlib and portions of Hama province. (See map.) (Qantara, Oct. 17; AFP, Oct. 10; BBC News, Oct. 8; EA Worldview, Oct. 7) But Bashar Assad insisted that the so-called "demilitarized zone" is temporary. Addressing the central committee of his Baath Party, Assad reiterated his pledge to retake "every inch" of Syrian territory: "This province and other Syrian territory remaining under the control of terrorists will return to the Syrian state." (EA Worldview, Oct. 8)