Sym­bolic Aleppo flight comes as civil­ians suf­fer in Syria

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - WEATHER - By Al­bert Aji and Zeina Karam

ALEPPO, SYRIA >> A Syr­ian pas­sen­ger jet landed in Aleppo on Wed­nes­day from Dam­as­cus as do­mes­tic flights re­sumed be­tween Syria’s two largest cities for the first time since 2012, while the govern­ment con­tin­ued bom­bard­ing sev­eral rebel-held towns and vil­lages nearby.

The flight car­ry­ing Syr­ian of­fi­cials and jour­nal­ists was an im­por­tant sym­bol that Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s govern­ment, with Rus­sian mil­i­tary sup­port, has con­sol­i­dated its con­trol over the north­west­ern prov­ince of Aleppo and also seized the last seg­ments of the strate­gic M5 high­way link­ing Aleppo to Dam­as­cus. The mo­tor­way, un­der re­pair, is sched­uled to re­open in com­ing days for the first time in eight years.

For weeks, govern­ment forces have been con­duct­ing a crush­ing mil­i­tary cam­paign to re­cap­ture the Aleppo coun­try­side and parts of neigh­bor­ing Idlib prov­ince, the last rebel-held ar­eas in the coun­try. The swift ad­vances on mul­ti­ple fronts have trig­gered the largest sin­gle wave of dis­place­ment in the nine-year civil war, with nearly 1 mil­lion peo­ple driven from their homes to­ward the Turk­ish border.

The suf­fer­ing has been com­pounded by a bit­ter win­ter with freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, lead­ing to a num­ber of deaths among peo­ple shel­ter­ing un­der plas­tic tents, in open fields and un­der trees. The ad­vo­cacy group Save the Chil­dren re­ported Tues­day that seven chil­dren, in­clud­ing a 7-month-old, have died in cold and “hor­rific liv­ing con­di­tions” in dis­place­ment camps in north­west­ern Syria over re­cent weeks.

The U.N. puts the num­ber of civil­ians dis­placed since Dec. 1 at more than 900,000 — most of them women and chil­dren. Hu­man­i­tar­ian chief Mark Low­cock said at least 100 civil­ians, 35 of them chil­dren, were killed so far in Fe­bru­ary by airstrikes and shelling. He said aid ef­forts are “over­whelmed.”

In New York, the U.N.’s Syria en­voy, Geir Ped­er­sen, ex­pressed alarm at the “rapid de­te­ri­o­ra­tion” in Idlib, and he ap­pealed for a cease­fire.

“Young chil­dren are dy­ing from cold. The po­ten­tial for more dis­place­ment and even more cat­a­strophic hu­man suf­fer­ing is ap­par­ent as an in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple are hemmed into an ever-shrink­ing space,” he told a Se­cu­rity Coun­cil meet­ing on Syria.

Satel­lite images showed the stag­ger­ing scale of the dis­place­ment, con­cen­trated within a small space in Idlib prov­ince near the border with Turkey.

The images from Colorado-based Maxar Tech­nolo­gies show a huge num­ber of tents and shel­ters near Kafaldin and Deir Has­san. Images from the same area a year ago show the rapid ex­pan­sion of the in­for­mal camps, as hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple scram­bled to es­cape the on­slaught. The images also show tents near the edge of a nearby quarry.

Airstrikes and shelling were re­ported Wed­nes­day on sev­eral rebel-held ar­eas, mostly near the towns of Daret Azzeh and Atareb. The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, an op­po­si­tion war mon­i­tor­ing group, re­ported more than 120 airstrikes on Tues­day alone.

The Syr­ian Civil De­fense, an ac­tivist group, re­ported that four civil­ians were killed and 18 were wounded in Tues­day’s bom­bard­ment on sev­eral parts of Idlib.

Rida Haj Bakri was among those flee­ing Daret Azzeh, most of them to the ar­eas of Afrin and Azaz. He and his fam­ily had fled to Daret Azzeh from Maaret elNu­man only about a month ago.

“The roads are filled with dis­placed peo­ple flee­ing . ... There is no wa­ter, no bread, I don’t have the price of di­a­pers,” he said.

“I don’t know — where do we go from here?” he asked as he and his rel­a­tives packed their mea­ger be­long­ings onto a pickup truck.

Al­though Rus­sia and Turkey sup­port op­pos­ing sides in the con­flict, the of­fen­sive has strained co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Moscow and Ankara and led to di­rect clashes be­tween Syr­ian and Turk­ish troops.

Turkey and Rus­sia have closely co­or­di­nated their moves in re­cent years in Idlib prov­ince. A truce reached be­tween the two coun­tries col­lapsed in late 2019, lead­ing to the cur­rent Rus­sian­backed of­fen­sive.

Turkey arms and trains the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion and has sent thou­sands of troops and mil­i­tary re­in­force­ments into Idlib in re­cent weeks to try to stem the Syr­ian govern­ment ad­vance. That has led to rare clashes be­tween Turk­ish and Syr­ian troops, with deaths on both sides.

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan on Wed­nes­day called for As­sad’s forces to re­treat from Idlib or face an “im­mi­nent” Turk­ish in­ter­ven­tion.

“We are de­liv­er­ing our fi­nal warn­ings. We have not reached the de­sired re­sults as yet,” Er­do­gan said, ad­dress­ing law­mak­ers from his rul­ing party. “The op­er­a­tion in Idlib is a mat­ter of time. We could en­ter (Idlib) sud­denly one night.”

His com­ments came a day af­ter a top Turk­ish of­fi­cial said talks in Moscow be­tween Rus­sian and Turk­ish rep­re­sen­ta­tives to reduce ten­sions in Idlib did not yield a “sat­is­fac­tory re­sult” for Ankara. The of­fi­cial said how­ever, that the sides agreed to con­tinue dis­cus­sions.

Rus­sian of­fi­cials said they held Turkey re­spon­si­ble for the col­lapse of the cease­fire deal that was reached dur­ing talks in Sochi, Rus­sia, say­ing Ankara had not held up its end of the deal to rein in mil­i­tants, who con­tin­ued at­tack­ing Syr­ian and Rus­sian tar­gets.

“We were sat­is­fied with the agree­ments reached a year ago in Sochi,” Krem­lin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“We ab­so­lutely stopped be­ing sat­is­fied when mili­tias and ter­ror­ists in Idlib started their at­tacks on the Syr­ian mil­i­tary and Rus­sian mil­i­tary ob­jects. That’s where our sat­is­fac­tion ended.”

SANA VIA AP

Syr­ian of­fi­cials and jour­nal­ists dis­em­bark a Syr­ian com­mer­cial plane af­ter it landed at Aleppo Air­port, Syria, Wed­nes­day.

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