Intense fighting between pro-government forces and jihadist-led fighters in Syria’s Idlib province killed at least 39 fighters overnight, a war monitor said Thursday.
The violence, which saw air strikes, shelling and ground combat, further buried a ceasefire announced by Russia on Sunday in Idlib, the last major opposition bastion in the country.
Government and allied forces took two villages in their advance towards the key town of Maaret al-Numan, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
According to the Britain-based war monitor, the fighting flared late on Wednesday in areas south of Maaret al-Numan, the key target of the Syrian government’s latest military offensive.
At least 22 anti-government fighters were killed, most of them members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group that includes fighters from the former Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
Seventeen government troops and allied militia were also killed in the fighting, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Observatory.
He added that government forces were now just seven kilometres (less than five miles) from Maaret al-Numan, a town that was one of the bastions of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Nearly nine years into the conflict protests against the government are still held in some of the province’s towns.
In the city of Idlib itself, 18 civilians were killed in air strikes on Wednesday, shattering the truce brokered by Moscow and rebel backer Ankara.
The fighting has prompted hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes in recent weeks, exposing them to a harsh winter.
Regime airstrikes on a city in Syria’s last major opposition bastion killed at least 18 civilians Wednesday, striking bustling areas of Idlib city despite a fresh Russian-sponsored truce, a war monitor said.
The raids hit a vegetable market and repair shops in Idlib, capital of the jihadist-held province of the same name, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Britain-based monitoring group had earlier reported nine civilians dead and at least 20 wounded but warned that the death toll was likely to rise as many were seriously injured.
It said two children and a rescue worker were among the dead.
The bombardment engulfed several vehicles in the industrial zone, leaving torched corpses of motorists trapped inside, an AFP correspondent said.
One man was seen running towards the site of the attack, slapping his forehead with both hands in despair.
Mustafa, who runs a repair shop in the area, was lucky to escape with his life. He had just left the store to pick up some spare parts.
He told AFP he returned to find the shop destroyed and his four employees trapped under rubble. It was not immediately clear if they had survived.
“This is not the neighbourhood I left two minutes ago!” Mustafa said, tears rolling down his face.
The Observatory also reported dozens of regime and Russian airstrikes in the broader Idlib province, particularly in the southern zone close to regime-held territory.
It said one person had died in the village of Al-Has.
Idlib has come under mounting bombardment in recent weeks, displacing tens of thousands of people in the northwestern province home to some three million.
The United Nations’ humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said that since December 1, almost 350,000 people had fled their homes, mainly heading northwards from southern Idlib which has borne the brunt of regime strikes.
A truce brokered this month by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey was in principle to have taken effect from Sunday.
It follows a truce announced in late August, after strikes by the regime and its ally Russia killed some 1,000 civilians in four months, according to the Observatory.
The Damascus government has repeatedly vowed to retake Idlib, which is run by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Syria’s war has killed more than 380,000 people including over 115,000 civilians since it broke out in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
An airstrike in eastern Syria killed eight fighters of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force overnight, a war monitor said on Friday.
“Unidentified aircraft targeted vehicles and arms depots in the Albu Kamal area, causing a large explosion. At least eight Iraqi Hashed fighters were killed,” the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.
He said several others were wounded.
Through a spokesman contacted by AFP, the US-led military coalition operating in Syria and Iraq denied carrying out the strike.
Abdel Rahman said three villages in the Albu Kamal area known for housing forces loyal to Tehran have been targeted by drone strikes since Wednesday, causing no casualties.
Syria’s war began as a peaceful uprising that was swiftly crushed in a regime crackdown. Almost nine years on, more than 380,000 people have died, and millions more have fled.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin — a key ally of Damascus — on Tuesday made a surprise visit to the country, here is a summary of the main events in the conflict:
Revolt to repression
In March 2011, protests break out to demand political change after four decades of repressive rule by the Assad dynasty.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime cracks down on demonstrations but rallies continue.
In July an army colonel who has defected from the military sets up the Turkey-based opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA).
An armed rebellion erupts, with support from western and Arab countries. The rebels seize key territory, including large swathes of third city Homs and a chunk of the ancient city of Aleppo.
In 2012 regime forces step up their crackdown, carrying out bloody operations, notably in the central city of Hama, a bastion of opposition to the Assad regime.
In July FSA fighters launch a battle for Damascus but the government holds firm.
From 2013 regime helicopters and planes unleash air strikes, some of them using barrel bombs, on rebel zones.
The same year Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah confirms it has deployed fighters to back Syrian government forces.
Iran also boosts its support for Assad.
On August 21, 2013, chemical attacks blamed on the regime on two rebel-held areas near Damascus reportedly kill more than 1,400 people. The regime denies the charge.
Then US president Barack Obama pulls back from threatened punitive strikes on Syrian regime infrastructure, instead of agreeing a deal with Moscow that is meant to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Islamic State group
In June 2014, the jihadist Islamic State group proclaims a “caliphate” over territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq.
In September a US-led coalition launches airstrikes against IS in Syria.
The strikes benefit Kurdish groups, who since 2013 have run autonomous administrations in Kurdish-majority areas.
Kurds join with Arabs to form the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
They oust IS from key areas including the jihadists’ de facto capital Raqa in 2017, and then in 2019 their last Syrian holdout, the village of Baghuz.
In October IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed during a US special services operation in northwestern Syria.
Russia steps in
In September 2015 Russia launches airstrikes in support of Assad’s troops, in a campaign that will prove to be a turning point in the war.
In a string of deadly campaigns, the regime retakes key rebel bastions, from Aleppo in 2016 to Eastern Ghouta in 2018.
In April 2017 a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun kills more than 80 people.
US President Donald Trump unleashes missile strikes against the regime’s Shayrat airbase.
In April 2018, the US, with the support of France and Britain, launches retaliatory strikes after an alleged regime chemical attack on the then rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus.
Turkish offensive against Kurds
On October 9, 2019, Ankara launches an offensive targeting Kurdish forces in Syria, whom it brands “terrorists” linked to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.
It follows Washington’s decision to withdraw US forces from the Turkey-Syria border area.
Turkey and its Syrian proxies have since taken a 120-kilometre by 30-kilometre stretch of the border.
Battle for Idlib
Since mid-December, the Syrian regime and its ally Russia have ramped up their bombardments of Idlib province in the northwest, involving ground battles with jihadists and rebels.
Damascus vows to reconquer the region, run by the powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist alliance, led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Almost nine years of civil war in Syria has left more than 380,000 people dead including over 115,000 civilians, a war monitor said in a new toll Saturday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of sources across the country, said they included around 22,000 children and more than 13,000 women.
The conflict flared after unprecedented anti-government protests in the southern city of Daraa on March 15, 2011.
Demonstrations spread across Syria and were brutally suppressed by the regime, triggering a multi-front armed conflict that has drawn in jihadists and foreign powers.
The conflict has displaced or sent into exile around 13 million Syrians, causing billions of dollars-worth of destruction.
The Britain-based Observatory’s last casualty toll on the Syrian conflict, issued in March last year, stood at more than 370,000 dead.
The latest toll included more than 128,000 Syrian and non-Syrian pro-regime fighters.
More than half of those were Syrian soldiers, while 1,682 were from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah whose members have been fighting in Syria since 2013.
The war has also taken the lives of more than 69,000 opposition, Islamist, and Kurdish-led fighters.
It has killed more than 67,000 jihadists, mainly from the Islamic State group and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The total death toll does not include some 88,000 people who died of torture in regime jails, or thousands missing after being abducted by all sides in the conflict.
With the support of powerful allies Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has inched his way back in recent years to controlling almost two-thirds of the country.
That comes after a string of victories against rebels and jihadists since 2015, but also his forces being deployed to parts of the northeast of the country under a deal to halt a Turkish cross-border operation last year.
Several parts of the country, however, remain beyond the reach of the Damascus government.
They include the last major opposition bastion of Idlib, a region of some three million people that is ruled by the jihadists of HTS.
An escalation in violence there in recent weeks has caused 284,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
In the northeast, Turkish troops and their proxies control a strip of land along the border after seizing it from Kurdish fighters earlier this year.
Kurdish-led forces control the far east Syria, where US troops have been deployed near major oil fields.
Syria’s conflict is estimated to have set its economy back three decades, destroying infrastructure and paralysing the production of electricity and oil.
The UN Security Council will meet behind closed doors on Friday to discuss an uptick in violence in the embattled Syrian opposition stronghold of Idlib, diplomats told AFP.
The meeting — which will begin at 10:00 am (1500 GMT) — comes at the request of Britain and France, with the backing of the United States, the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Thursday.
Some diplomats hope the session will provide an occasion to discuss the reauthorization of cross-border UN humanitarian aid deliveries to millions of Syrians.
Humanitarian aid currently flows into Syria through UN-designated checkpoints in Turkey and Iraq without the formal permission of the regime in Damascus, but that arrangement expires on January 10.
Last month, Russia and China vetoed a resolution that would have extended those deliveries for a year. Moscow says it will only approve a six-month extension using two checkpoints.
Three million people in the Idlib area benefit from that aid, according to the United Nations.
In a telephone call on Thursday, US President Donald Trump and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed on “the need for de-escalation in Idlib, Syria, in order to protect civilians,” the White House said.
On Thursday, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Henrietta Fore called for an “immediate cessation of hostilities in the northwest of Syria.”
“We call on those fighting, especially in the northwest, and those with influence over them for the following: stop all attacks on children and services that provide for them, including health and education facilities and water systems,” she said in a statement.
According to UNICEF, at least 140,000 children have been displaced in the past three weeks due to fighting in and around Idlib.
Syrian ally Russia announced a ceasefire for Idlib in late August after months of deadly Russian and regime bombardment that killed around 1,000 civilians.
But sporadic clashes and bombardment persisted throughout the autumn before a spike in violence in the past month, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Turkey will not withdraw from its observation posts in the Syrian rebel bastion province of Idlib which has seen an increase in violence carried out by regime forces supported by Russian airstrikes, the defence minister said.
The posts were established under a September 2018 deal between Syrian regime ally Moscow and Ankara, which backs the rebels, to avert an all-out Syrian government onslaught in Idlib.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces surrounded one of 12 Turkish observation posts in Idlib province on Monday after overrunning nearby areas in a push to take the last opposition holdout, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“We respect the agreement reached with Russia and we expect Russia to abide by this agreement,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said in comments published on Sunday on the defence ministry’s Twitter account.
“We will by no means empty those 12 observation posts, we will not leave there,” Akar said.
His comments came during a visit, together with top army commanders, to the southern province of Hatay on the Syrian border to inspect Turkish troops on Saturday.
Turkey, worried over a new wave of refugees from the Idlib region, is pressing for a fresh ceasefire deal, as it sent a delegation to Moscow on Monday.
“We are doing what’s needed to put an end to this massacre,” Akar was quoted as saying by the official news agency Anadolu.
He said Ankara expected Damascus ally Russia to “use its influence on the regime in order to stop ground and air assault” in Idlib.
The latest violence has displaced more than 235,000 people and killed scores of civilians, despite an August ceasefire deal and international calls for a de-escalation.
The Idlib region hosts some three million people including many displaced by years of violence in other parts of Syria.
“As long as this pressure remains in place, it will trigger a new migrant wave and put further burden on Turkey which is already hosting nearly four million Syrian brothers,” said Akar.
Around 300 protesters — mostly Syrians living in Turkey — held an anti-Moscow demonstration near the Russian consulate in Istanbul on Saturday against the intensified attacks in Idlib, shouting “murderer Putin, get out of Syria!”, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Akar’s visit to soldiers on the border region comes as Turkey is also readying to send troops to support the UN-recognised government in Tripoli against strongman Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army.
“The Turkish Armed Forces are ready for whatever task is given in order to protect our country and people’s interests,” Akar said.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday said Ankara would respond to an invitation from the Libyan national unity government and that the Turkish parliament would vote on a motion to send troops as soon as it returns from recess as early as next month.
Ankara signed in November a security and military cooperation deal with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) but in order to send troops, parliament needs to vote through a motion as it does for Iraq and Syria.
Anadolu news agency, citing sources in Erdogan’s ruling party, reported that the timetable could be brought forward and the motion could be presented to the parliamentary speaker’s office on Monday.
The General Assembly could vote the measure in an extraordinary session on Thursday, it said. Parliament is due to return from recess on January 7.
The United Nations General Assembly on Friday adopted a $3.07 billion operating budget which for the first time includes funding for the investigation of war crimes in Syria and Myanmar.
The budget represents a slight increase from 2019’s figure of $2.9 billion.
The increase is due to additional missions assigned to the UN Secretariat, inflation and exchange rate adjustments, according to diplomats.
These include the observer mission in Yemen, a political mission established in Haiti, the investigation of crimes committed in Syria since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, and in Myanmar after the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority.
For the first time, the budgets for the Syria and Myanmar investigations — which were previously financed by voluntary contributions — will in 2020 be transferred to the UN secretariat’s budget and will receive compulsory contributions from the 193 member states.
Russia proposed multiple amendments during negotiations in the Committee on Budgetary Questions meeting and in the General Assembly plenary session.
At each vote, Russia, Syria, Myanmar and their supporters, including North Korea, Iran, Nicaragua and Venezuela, were outvoted. They all stated that they dissociated themselves from references to investigative mechanisms in the adopted resolutions.
Russia said it would examine its future obligatory payments in light of the vote outcome and predicted an increase in the arrears that currently plague the UN’s treasury due to countries not paying enough.
Moscow argued Friday the investigative mechanism was illegitimate, while Damascus stressed that it had no mandate from the Security Council.
The UN’s operating budget is separate from the annual budget for peacekeeping operations of some $6 billion that is adopted in June.