Heavy airstrikes in scattered parts of the rebel-held northern enclave of Idlib, Syria, overnight gave way to a precarious calm during the day Saturday, as diplomatic talks about Idlib city's fate continued behind the scenes.
Arab media reported that over two dozen people were killed airstrikes by Russian planes early Saturday. They showed amateur video of the Syrian opposition White Helmets civil defense force appearing to pull a child from out of the rubble in the town of Urem al Kubra, where a number of the fatalities occurred. VOA could not independently confirm the veracity of the video.
A resident of Urem al Kubra said Russian airstrikes had caused catastrophic damage in the town. Amateur video appeared to confirm that a large number of buildings had collapsed from the reported airstrikes, leaving rubble in the streets of the town.
Rami Abdel Rahman of the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Arab media that more than 30 people had died in the airstrikes and that the number of casualties would probably rise. VOA could not independently confirm his claim.
He said airstrikes had stopped for the day around Idlib and the west of Aleppo, but that there was a tense calm, and it wasn't clear if there was some sort of Turkish-Iranian-Russian agreement on the horizon over the fate of the region. He contended that Russia was interested in retaking the Damascus-Aleppo international highway.
The large town of Maarat al Naaman, which is on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, was hit by Russian airstrikes overnight, according to Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV.
Syrian government media showed Syrian military reinforcements being brought into the Idlib region for what they claimed was an imminent operation to retake Idlib city.
Joshua Landis, who heads the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma, told VOA he thought the Syrian government was hoping to retake Idlib the same way it recently recaptured the southern city of Daraa — by negotiating "reconciliation agreements" with the various rebel militias that are at each other's throats.
"[President Bashar al-] Assad's strategy is to divide and conquer in Idlib province, in the same way that he did in Daraa," Landis said. "There were 56 militias. More than half of them reconciled with the government and put down their guns. This left the remaining militias in a very weakened and vulnerable position. And this is why the Syrian government and army [were] able to sweep through Daraa in less than a month's time and conquer the place."
Landis added, however, that the situation in Idlib was "much more complex ... [and that] there are many more militias and many more radical militias." The region, he stressed, "has been a collecting point for those militiamen who refused to reconcile, so [Idlib] is going to be a much tougher nut to crack."
The Asharqalawsat newspaper reported Saturday that Syrian government planes had dropped leaflets over Idlib province, urging citizens and militia fighters to "reconcile with the government," since the government was going to "retake the Idlib and that their futures and the futures of their families were at stake."
Treated as traitors
Rebel militias, however, have warned their members that they will be "killed or dealt with as traitors" should they do so, according to Landis.
U.S. Iraq special envoy Brett McGurk said some months ago that Idlib had the "biggest collection of al-Qaida militants since 9/11."
"But," said Landis, "[the West] would prefer to have Turkey dismantle [these militias]. It would prefer not to have Syria, which is going to just bomb and create a wave of refugees that will plague not only Turkey but could also plague the West ... and leave [Idlib] looking like Mosul, or Raqqa or Aleppo. So, rather than using air power, they're hoping that Turkey can use a scalpel."
In a separate development, Syrian government media reported that Syrian air defenses had shot down an Israeli drone that entered Syrian airspace from Lebanon. Another Israeli drone also reportedly was downed recently.