Syria, Rus­sia launch airstrikes

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Louisa Loveluck The Washington Post

Syr­ian and Rus­sian jets hit the north­ern province of Idlib, Syria’s last rebel strong­hold, dozens of times.

BEIRUT — Syr­ian and Rus­sian war­planes launched dozens of airstrikes on Syria’s north­ern province of Idlib on Satur­day, a mon­i­tor­ing group said, in­ten­si­fy­ing pres­sure on the coun­try’s last rebel strong­hold af­ter cri­sis talks yielded no progress.

At least seven civil­ians were dead af­ter some 80 airstrikes around the province’s south­ern edge, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights. It said the vi­o­lence was the “most in­tense” in weeks, with he­li­copters also drop­ping bar­rel bombs packed with shrap­nel.

Pro-gov­ern­ment forces have massed on the edges of Idlib, wedged into Syria’s north­west along the Turk­ish bor­der. Syr­ian and Rus­sian of­fi­cials — key al­lies in Syria’s long con­flict — ap­pear to be pre­par­ing for an all-out as­sault to re­take the area.

But there are deep fears that an at­tempt to re­claim Idlib could touch off ma­jor blood­shed and a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis among the area’s 3 mil­lion civil­ians, half of them dis­placed from else­where in Syria.

At a meet­ing in Tehran on Fri­day, the pres­i­dents of Rus­sia, Iran and Turkey failed to agree on a cease-fire to halt the vi­o­lence.

Although on dif­fer­ent sides of the war, Turkey and Rus­sia share an in­ter­est in pre­vent­ing the sit­u­a­tion from un­rav­el­ing.

Turkey wor­ries the vi­o­lence could send hun­dreds of thou­sands of flee­ing civil­ians to its bor­der. Rus­sia is wary of be­ing drawn deeper into a bloody bat­tle as it tells in­ter­na­tional part­ners that Syria is sta­bi­liz­ing and open for re­con­struc­tion.

The Ob­ser­va­tory said Satur­day that some 2,000 peo­ple were al­ready on the move from ar­eas be­ing bombed, head­ing deeper into Idlib province.

Al-Qaida-linked rebels con­trol more than half of Idlib, and much of the Rus­sian and Syr­ian gov­ern­ment rhetoric has fo­cused on de­feat­ing the group.

The state-run AlIkhbariya TV said Satur­day that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment was re­tal­i­at­ing against rebel shelling on a gov­ern­ment-held area south of Idlib. The bar­rage late Fri­day in Mhradah killed at least nine civil­ians, ac­cord­ing to state me­dia. The re­ports could not be in­de­pen­dently ver­i­fied.

Sep­a­rately, clashes broke out in eastern Syria in Qamishli, a town close to the bor­der with Turkey, be­tween gov­ern­ment and Kur­dish se­cu­rity mem­bers. The Ob­ser­va­tory said the clashes left 10 gov­ern­ment se­cu­rity per­son­nel and seven Kur­dish fight­ers dead.

The town is run by Kur­dish-led ad­min­is­tra­tors and forces, but Syr­ian gov­ern­ment troops hold pock­ets of ter­ri­tory there, in­clud­ing the air­port. Oc­ca­sional clashes erupt there over turf con­trol and au­thor­ity, re­flect­ing deep­en­ing po­lit­i­cal tension be­tween the un­easy part­ners.

The U.S.-backed Kur­dish ad­min­is­tra­tion has been talk­ing with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, seek­ing gov­ern­ment recog­ni­tion of its self-rule ar­eas. But in re­cent days, Da­m­as­cus an­nounced that it will be hold­ing lo­cal elec­tions, in­clud­ing in Kur­dish-ruled ar­eas, un­der­min­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Kurds.

OMAR HAJ KADOUR/GETTY-AFP

Syr­ian pro­test­ers de­cry the regime and its ally Rus­sia in rebel-held Idlib on Fri­day.

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