Syr­ian troops press ahead as airstrikes kill at least 16

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - WEATHER - By Suzan Fraser and Bassem Mroue

ANKARA, TURKEY >> Airstrikes on rebel-con­trolled north­west Syria killed at least 16 peo­ple Tues­day, in­clud­ing two stu­dents and two teachers, op­po­si­tion ac­tivists said, as gov­ern­ment forces cap­tured a town con­sid­ered a sym­bol of the upris­ing against Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

The cap­ture of Kafran­bel was an­other blow to in­sur­gents af­ter gov­ern­ment gains over the past three months. Kafran­bel was a ma­jor op­po­si­tion-held town that gained at­ten­tion in the early years of the Syr­ian con­flict be­cause of weekly anti-gov­ern­ment protests that in­cluded hu­mor­ous English-lan­guage ban­ners car­ried by protesters.

The ban­ners were ini­ti­ated by anti-gov­ern­ment jour­nal­ist Raed Fares who was shot dead in the town along with his friend Ham­moud al-Juneid in Novem­ber 2018. Fares was a harsh critic of Is­lamic mil­i­tants who con­trol much of Idlib.

The gov­ern­ment con­trolled Syr­ian Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Me­dia said Kafran­bel was cap­tured late Tues­day af­ter fierce fight­ing with alQaida-linked mil­i­tants. The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, an op­po­si­tion war mon­i­tor, said the town was taken by the gov­ern­ment af­ter pun­ish­ing bom­bard­ment from the air and ground.

The vi­o­lence came as Turkey’s pres­i­dent an­nounced that a Rus­sian del­e­ga­tion would ar­rive the fol­low­ing day to re­sume talks aimed at eas­ing ten­sions in the north­west Idlib re­gion. The area is the coun­try’s last rebel-con­trolled strong­hold and the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s mil­i­tary cam­paign there, backed by Rus­sia, has cre­ated a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe with nearly 1 mil­lion peo­ple dis­placed from their homes since Dec. 1.

Most of them are now crowd­ing ar­eas close to the bor­der with Turkey, liv­ing in camps, shel­ters, aban­doned homes and in open fields. It is the largest sin­gle dis­place­ment of Syria’s war, now in its ninth year.

In re­sponse to the up­surge in vi­o­lence, U.N. spokesman Stephane Du­jar­ric said the U.N. has launched a re­vised ap­peal for $500 mil­lion to as­sist at least 1.1 mil­lion peo­ple in need. He said dis­cus­sions are un­der way with Turkey dou­ble the num­ber of trucks cross­ing the bor­der with hu­man­i­tar­ian aid from 50 to 100.

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan said no con­sen­sus was reached for a four-way meet­ing next month be­tween the lead­ers of France, Ger­many, Rus­sia and Turkey meant to ad­dress the cri­sis. He added, how­ever, that Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin may still come to Turkey next week for a bi­lat­eral meet­ing. Moscow has so far not con­firmed a March 5 visit by the Rus­sian pres­i­dent to Turkey.

Ten­sions have been run­ning high be­tween Turkey and Rus­sia, which sup­port op­pos­ing sides of the war in Syria. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive has shat­tered a frag­ile cease-fire agree­ment that Turkey and Rus­sia reached in 2018 and Turkey has threat­ened mil­i­tary ac­tion un­less Syr­ian forces re­treat to po­si­tions they held be­fore the ad­vance by the end of Fe­bru­ary.

“Rus­sia sup­ports Syria at the high­est level,” Er­do­gan told re­porters be­fore de­part­ing for a visit to Azer­bai­jan. “Even if they deny it, we have ev­i­dence. We are forced to be in this fight.”

Turk­ish of­fi­cials had re­ported small progress in two pre­vi­ous rounds of Turkey-Rus­sia meet­ings but said the re­sults were not sat­is­fac­tory.

Turkey had set up a dozen ob­ser­va­tion posts as part of the 2018 agree­ment, many of which are now be­hind Syr­ian gov­ern­ment lines. Ankara also sent thou­sands of ad­di­tional troops into Idlib in re­cent weeks and has fre­quently en­gaged in mil­i­tary ex­changes with Syr­ian troops.

At least 16 Turk­ish sol­diers were killed in clashes this month dur­ing the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s push on the last rebel strong­hold.

U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo told a news con­fer­ence at the State De­part­ment Tues­day that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s of­fen­sive “only height­ens the risk of con­flict with our NATO ally, Turkey,” adding that the U.S. was work­ing to­gether with Turkey “on see­ing what we can do to­gether.”

He called for a per­ma­nent cease-fire, say­ing “the regime will not be able to ob­tain mil­i­tary vic­tory.”

The fight­ing ap­peared to in­ten­sify, how­ever, with dozens of airstrikes re­ported Tues­day.

Op­po­si­tion ac­tivists and a war mon­i­tor said at least 16 peo­ple were killed in Idlib prov­ince Tues­day. They in­cluded two stu­dents and two teachers who were killed in Idlib city when a school was struck with a clus­ter bomb-filled rocket, and 10 civil­ians who were killed in airstrikes on the town of Maarat Mis­reen in Idlib prov­ince. The deaths were re­ported by the Ob­ser­va­tory and Idlib-based op­po­si­tion ac­tivist Hadi Ab­dul­lah.

The Ob­ser­va­tory and Idlib-based op­po­si­tion ac­tivist Ta­her al-Omar said in­sur­gents cap­tured the vil­lage of Nairab late Mon­day af­ter in­tense fight­ing with gov­ern­ment forces that had cap­tured the vil­lage ear­lier this month. The vil­lage is close to the town of Saraqeb where two ma­jor high­ways in the coun­try meet.

To the south of Nairab, Syr­ian troops cap­tured two new vil­lages rais­ing to 10 the num­ber of ar­eas cap­tured in the prov­ince since Mon­day, ac­cord­ing to state me­dia.

The cap­ture of Maaret Ta­mater and Maaret Seen paved the way for gov­ern­ment forces to storm Kafran­bel.

In Da­m­as­cus, one civil­ian was killed and two others were in­jured by bombs planted in two cars near Umayyad Square in the Syr­ian cap­i­tal Da­m­as­cus, staterun news agency SANA said. It was not im­me­di­ately clear who the tar­get was.

PHOTOS BY GHAITH ALSAYED — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Turk­ish backed Syr­ian fight­ers take a break near the vil­lage of Neirab, in Idlib prov­ince, Syria, on Mon­day.

Turk­ish backed Syr­ian fight­ers pre­pare to fire a how­itzer near the vil­lage of Neirab, in Idlib prov­ince, Syria, on Mon­day.

Turk­ish backed Syr­ian fight­ers pre­pare to go to a front­line near the vil­lage of Neirab, in Idlib prov­ince, Syria, on Mon­day.

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