Russian air strikes hit Syria's last major rebel bastion for first time since March ceasefire

David Rose
Turkish soldiers patrol along a road past destroyed buildings atop the Arbaeen hill, Idlib (file photo) - OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Russian war planes have reportedly carried out their first air strikes in northwest Syria in three months, as a ceasefire in the last rebel-held part of the country begins to crack.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group, said Russian jets targeted rebel-held areas with missiles early Wednesday morning and Tuesday night, following earlier artillery bombardments by Syrian government forces.

The strikes in and around the northwestern province of Idlib are the first in support of President Bashar Al-Assad’s ground forces since a truce brokered with Turkey brought relative calm to the region in early March.

Although there were no immediate reports of casualties, the resumption of violence prompted hundreds of people to flee north towards the Turkish border, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, has stationed thousands of troops to oppose any further advance by the Syrian regime and their Russian allies.  

After nine years of civil war, Syria’s rebel forces have been pushed back to a northwestern pocket around Idlib, where the Turkish-backed resistance is dominated by jihadist groups such as Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), led by former members of al-Qaeda.

Syria Turkey border _ Idlib

One Idlib-based activist, Hadi Abdullah, said today’s air strikes targeted a mountain region in Latakia province on the edge of Idlib, and a power station on the northern edge of Hama province which HTS militants had controlled since 2015.

The truce signed in March previously halted a terrifying four-month offensive by President Assad’s forces, supported by Russian air power, which killed at least 500 civilians and forced nearly one million people to flee their homes – many of whom had fled earlier fighting during the war.

There have been minor violations of the truce in recent weeks, war monitors said, such as joint Russian and Turkish military patrols being attacked by militias or blocked by protests.  

But in recent days, both Turkey and the government in Damascus have been sending reinforcements to areas around the Idlib pocket, while Russia has delivered a number of modern MIG-29 military jets to the Syrian Air Force.

Aid groups warned that a resumption in violence amid the coronavirus pandemic could be “catastrophic” for the war-torn country.