|Date: Jun 8, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Northwest Syria battles rage after rebel counterattack|
|AZAZ, Syria: Battles intensified in northwest Syria Friday after militants mounted an attack to repel an army offensive that has pounded the country’s last major rebel stronghold for weeks.|
The clashes on the edge of the militant-controlled Idlib region have killed at least 53 government loyalists along with 48 militants since Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The region of some 3 million people - almost half of them displaced from other parts of the country - is dominated by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate.
The alliance administers a region that spans most of Idlib province as well as adjacent slivers of the neighboring Latakia, Aleppo, and Hama provinces. The region has seen a spike in bombardment since late April, with regime forces seizing several towns on the region’s southwestern flank.
Late Thursday, the militants and allied rebels launched a counterattack against regime forces in the northwest of Hama province.
They have since seized the villages of Tal Maleh and Jibeen amid heavy clashes and airstrikes by government and Russian forces, the Observatory said.
The area saw “the fiercest fighting since the start of the escalation in late April,” Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
The fighting is raging near Christian and Alawite areas under regime control, he said.
State news agency SANA said army units in northern Hama had “responded with force to attacking terrorist groups ... and took back a number of positions.”
Militant factions denied reports that government forces had recovered the positions and said army units were suffering heavy losses as fighting raged Friday.
In the Idlib province, two children were killed overnight - one in regime rocket fire in the village of Frike and another in an airstrike in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the Observatory said.
The militants who took part in the counterattack include some from the Al-Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Deen and Turkistan Islamic Party.
Syrian state media said the insurgents shelled residential homes in the northern countryside of Hama, an area controlled by government forces, causing damages.
Idlib is supposed to be protected from a massive regime offensive by a September buffer zone deal signed between regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.
But it was never fully implemented, as militants refused to withdraw from the planned demilitarized zone.
The government and Russia have upped their bombardment of the region since late April, killing more than 300 civilians, according to the Observatory. Human Rights Watch said the Syrian-Russian military alliance has used internationally banned indiscriminate weapons, such as barrel bombs and incendiary weapons, in populated areas in northwest Syria in recent weeks. The United Nations say more than 270,000 people have fled their homes.
A total of 24 health facilities and 35 schools have been hit in the latest escalation, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian office.
“It is appalling ... and it must be brought to an end,” OCHA spokesman Jens Larke told reporters in Geneva Friday.
Even in hospitals that have not been hit, he added, “they fear that they may be hit. So the doctors, the health care personnel are leaving, the patients are not going.”
Analysts predict that Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies will continue to chip away at the area, but not unleash a major assault that would create chaos on Turkey’s doorstep.
Eight years into Syria’s civil war, two regions largely remain beyond regime control: a large northeastern swath held by the country’s Kurds, and Idlib.