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Syria Weekly: Is a new offensive on Idlib looming? Open in fullscreen

Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Is a new offensive on Idlib looming?

Idlib has witnessed near-daily shelling by regime forces [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 March, 2019

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A Russian-backed offensive on Idlib province is reportedly being planned, with Turkey desperately flexing its muscles to ward off an attack on the heavily populated area.

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Increased fighting on the front lines between opposition and regime forces in northern Syria have heightened fears of a new offensive on the densely populated Idlib province. Such is the threat level that Turkey has reportedly reinforced its own positions in the province, which could put it on a collision course with Russian-backed regime forces.

Meanwhile, the fate of thousands of detainees languishing in regime prisons appears grim following comments by a leading intelligence officer.

Offensive looming

Syrian rebel group Ansar al-Tawhid launched a surprise commando attack on regime positions in Hama province on Sunday, with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters launching another offensive hours later in the Latakia Mountains, following regime forces' repeated infractions of a ceasefire in Idlib province.

Ansar al-Tawhid announced on Sunday it launched a so-called "martyrdom operation" on regime positions in Hama, northern Syria. The "Inghimasi assault" style of attack used by Ansar al-Tawhid is a tactic specific to jihadi groups which often combine deploying "commando"-style fighters along with suicide bombers to inflict maximum damage.

The group claimed that the dawn raid killed 40 foreign fighters and injured dozens shortly after the attack.

Ansar al-Tawhid is said to be made up of former Jund al-Aqsa fighters, a former hard-line jihadi group based in Idlib province until it was crushed in 2017 by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Jund al-Aqsa was repeatedly accused of being an Islamic State group sleeper cell and contained a large contingent of foreign fighters.

Later on Sunday, HTS "infiltrators" took advantage of bad weather to launch another surprise assault on regime forces in Jebel al-Turkman, a mountainous areas in Latakia province. The offensive killed at least four Syrian regime troops and one Iranian.  

The attacks come after near-daily regime shelling of towns and villages in the demilitarised areas of Idlib province, which have killed scores of civilians. Pro-regime media have said Syrian government troops are planning a major offensive on the area, which is around 20km deep and would pave the way for Bashar al-Assad's forces to take the whole of opposition-held Idlib province.

A regime ground offensive would have to rely heavily on Iranian militias and Russian air support, but the Tehran-Moscow-Ankara sponsored Astana peace process could yet hamper this. In a message to Russia, Turkish forces have reportedly bolstered observer posts in Idlib province with reinforcements, which allegedly include heavy weaponry including tanks. Such a move would make it appear that Turkey would be willing to fight regime forces in Idlib if Damascus were to launch an assault in the coming weeks.

Syria observer Charles Lister also reported that Turkey had instructed its allied opposition forces to retaliate against repeated regime infractions of the ceasefire agreement in Idlib province, and threatened to pull out of the Astana Agreement if regime shelling continues. But pressure on Ankara could also force Turkey to act on Idlib province, which is controlled by the HTS-linked Salvation Government. The presence of the former al-Qaeda affiliated group has been used by Russia and the regime to argue that Idlib is no longer subject to the ceasefire agreement and therefore open to attack.

Forget the detainees

A Syrian general has made a harrowing indication that thousands of civilians detained during the early years of the country's uprising have been murdered in the regime's dungeons.

The General Intelligence Directorate's Major General Mohamed Mahla this week visited Daraa province in southern Syria, one of the first parts of the country to rise up against Bashar al-Assad's rule in 2011. There he told the families of men and women arrested during the early years of the revolution that their relatives were likely dead.

"Mahla told the [Daraa] residents to forget anyone taken before 2014, and then made promises to try to release those arrested after that and who were still alive," opposition site Alsouria Net reported.

Mahla was quoted by sources as saying that those arrested before 2014 were "in a critical state and most of them could be deceased".

Thousands of Syrians were detained when the Syrian regime attempted to crush pro-democracy protests that broke out across Syria in 2011 and onwards.

Activists, protesters, human rights workers and other civilians were detained during the regime's sweep, and many were never heard of again.

Mahla made the visit to the south with a number of leading regime and Russian officers following a petition from local residents about living conditions, military conscription and the silence into which detainees had vanished.

Much of Daraa province was controlled by a number of opposition groups for much of the Syria war, until a regime offensive last year saw the government retake control of the area. Some of the rebel fighters joined the regime's security forces, part of a Russian-sponsored reconciliation effort.

It is not known how many detainees have been killed or remain alive due to the highly secretive nature of the Syrian regime and fears of detainees' families inside Syria speaking out about their loved ones.

The 31-page 2014 Syrian Detainee Report - also known as the Caesar report - provided evidence for "the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees by the Syrian government in one region" from March 2011 to August 2013.

An Amnesty International report in 2011 detailed the secret killing of 13,000 detainees during mass hangings at the notorious Saydnaya prison near Damascus. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that at least 60,000 Syrians were killed by regime forces in detention, most dying under torture or due to the dire conditions in prisons.

The Syrian regime has started to issue hundreds of "death notices" to the families of prisoners, many of them detained during the early days of the war. Syria's uprising began as mostly peaceful until massive regime oppression encouraged mass defections from the military and forced Syrians to take up arms to defend themselves.

Joss Stone in Syria

Blue-eyed soul singer Joss Stone announced one of the most unusual gigs of her career this week, when she played a concert in front of around 70 people in northeast Syria.

The British singer said she performed in the town of Derika, an area close to the Turkish border which is controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

"We made it into #syria #kurdistan it was a little scary crossing the border as of course we have absolutely no idea what might transpire, we just have to trust the people on the ground that are advising us and looking after us," Stone said on Instagram.

Stone was reportedly accompanied by British photographer Paul Conroy, who was in Syria for the first time since escaping a regime siege and bombardment of opposition Homs city in 2012. That assignment had ended in tragedy with the death of reporter Marie Colvin.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

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