Syrian regime 'launches ground attack' on Idlib following punishing air raids

Syrian regime 'launches ground attack' on Idlib following punishing air raids
The Syrian regime on Monday morning reportedly launched a major ground assault on the northern Idlib province, after almost a week of deadly aerial attacks.
3 min read
06 May, 2019
150,000 civilians have reportedly fled their homes over the past week [Anadolu]

The Syrian regime launched a long-feared ground attack on Idlib on Monday, an opposition province in northern Syria home to around 3 million civilians.

The reported ground attack follows over a week of escalating aerial bombardments by the Syrian regime and its main backer Russia.

While a Turkish-Russian deal last year averted a ground attack on the province, which has become a haven for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled regime attacks elsewhere in the country over the past eight years of war.

Although a demilitarised zone was established following the deal, aerial attacks by regime forces have continued on the province.

Syrian regime troops on Monday morning began a ground offensive in southern Idlib and the north of neighbouring Hama province, targeting areas under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and Jaish al-Izza, pro-regime Al-Masdar News outlet reported.

Both Al-Masdar and anti-regime STEP News reported that territorial gains had been made by the regime but they so far have so far been insignificant. Just two towns in northern Hama have been captured by regime forces according to Al-Masdar.

The attack came in tandem with Russian airstrikes across both provinces.

Rebel forces say the ground and aerial attacks are aimed at recapturing two strategic highways.

While Syrian state news agency SANA is yet to confirm a ground attack on Idlib, it confirmed on Monday that it had responded to "attacks by Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists" and "affiliated" groups with airstrikes in Idlib and Hama.

Intensified aerial bombardment over the past week - which has reportedly included the renewed use of crude barrel bombs by the regime - has already killed at least 50 people, the US-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) told Reuters on Sunday.

The the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claims at least 74 have been killed by the Russian and Syrian regime strikes, which have forced at least 150,000 to flee their homes according to UOSSM.

Four medical facilities have also been targeted during the escalated aerial campaign, with Nabad al-Hayat underground hospital completely destroyed by a suspected Russian strike on Sunday, according to local activists.

A ground assault on Idlib has long been expected by all sides - and feared by civilians.

Regime forces reinforced their positions near Idlib last week as pro-regime Facebook news pages claimed the appointment of Maher al-Assad, brother of President Bashar al-Assad, would be commanding an upcoming Idlib operation.

The majority of Syria's last rebel stronghold Idlib is controlled by HTS and other extremist groups, which the regime and Russia have often used as justification for bombing campaigns which have killed hundreds and displaced thousands.

The province is populated by three million civilians, around half of whom fled to Idlib after regime takeovers of other areas of Syria. Aerial bombardment and aid cuts to the province have produced a dire humanitarian situation.

With Turkey's border closed, civilians in Idlib have no safe place to flee to in the event of a full-scale ground assault on the province.

Analysts see a full-scale offensive as unlikely.

"Western diplomats have for a while expected Assad to slowly but surely depopulate and recapture 'slices' of Idlib province this year," tweeted analyst Tobias Schneider.