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Syrian Troops Pounding Idlib Despite Ceasefire

FILE - A Syrian army soldier holds a Syrian flag as he stands on a military vehicle in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, Syria, Aug. 24, 2019.

Syrian government troops on Sunday bombarded a rebel-held area in the Syrian northwestern province of Idlib, a monitor group said.

Several missiles targeted towns and villages in the southern part of Idlib that are controlled by rebel forces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

No casualties were reported in the Sunday attack.

Despite a unilateral ceasefire that was declared by the Syrian government and its ally Russia in late August, government forces have continued targeting towns and cities across the Syrian province, experts said.

“The ceasefire is vague and seems to only apply in certain parts of Idlib,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory.

He said that details of the ceasefire haven’t fully been disclosed.

“What is clear, however, is that [Syrian] regime forces want to recapture two highways that connect Aleppo to Damascus and Latakia. Both routes go through south Idlib,” Abdulrahman told VOA.

Syrian rebels said they have managed to halt the regime’s assault on south Idlib temporarily.

“We are responding directly by targeting the positions from where the shells are fired,” Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front opposition force, told Reuters news agency Sunday.

The Idlib province, home to nearly 3 million people, is the last major stronghold of rebel forces fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Idlib is largely controlled by the Islamist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

According to the latest U.N. count, at least 1,000 civilians have been killed in Idlib since April.

Last month, Syrian regime forces backed by Russia retook control of Idlib’s strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun, which had been under rebels’ control since 2014.

Civilians returning

On Sunday, Syrian state media reported that thousands of displaced civilians have begun returning to their homes in south Idlib that recently have been cleared of rebel fighters.

“Thousands of citizens return to their villages… of the southern Idlib countryside,” SANA news agency said.

The Syrian Observatory, however, claimed that those people had been living in regime-held areas and weren’t displaced due to the recent fighting.

“Most of them are from the [nearby province of] Hama and only a small number is actually from areas such as Khan Sheikhoun,” the Observatory reported.

Failed deal?

For years, Idlib has been a center of contention between Russia and Turkey, two powers that support opposite sides of the Syrian conflict.

In September 2018, Moscow and Ankara reached an agreement that postponed a planned Syrian regime offensive on Idlib and other areas near the Turkish border.

As part of that agreement, Turkey was required to remove all extremist groups from the province, some of which are allied with the al-Qaida terror group.

Some experts say that Syrian regime’s ongoing push to recapture Idlib from rebels indicates Russia’s discontent with Turkey’s failure to implement its part of the deal on Idlib.

“This is a reflection of Russia’s policy towards Idlib,” said John Saleh, a Syrian researcher based in Washington.

“Moscow has realized that Turkey cannot commit to the 2018 agreement, which included removing all radical groups from Idlib. That’s why Russia is determined to support Syrian regime troops to retake these areas from Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib,” he told VOA.

Presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran are to meet in Ankara on Monday to discuss the situation in Syria. Idlib is expected to take center stage in those talks, reports said.