|Date: May 8, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Deadly flare-up in Syria rattles months-old truce|
|KAFRANBEL, Syria: Airstrikes and shelling killed 13 civilians in northwestern Syria Tuesday, an activist group said, in the latest escalation to rattle a months-old truce and spark displacement.|
At least 53 fighters have also been killed since Monday, in one of the deadliest flare-ups since a demilitarized zone around the Idlib region was agreed in September last year, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The new wave of violence has resulted in hundreds of civilian dead and injured, and over 150,000 newly displaced persons, according to the United Nations.
“This is the third time we have been displaced but this time is the scariest,” said Abu Ahmad, a 40-year-old from southern Idlib who was fleeing Tuesday with his family toward areas near the border with Turkey.
“Flybys by warplanes and shelling have been relentless,” the father of three said, his blue pickup truck stacked with mattresses, bed sheets and household appliances.
Battles between Islamist militants and pro-government forces raged overnight around a hilltop in the northern countryside of Hama province, following an advance by President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Twenty-four pro-government fighters were killed in fierce fighting, the Observatory said, along with 29 militants.
The latter were members of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a group dominated by fighters from a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, and of the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uighur-dominated Islamist group.
Fighting subsided early Tuesday after pro-government forces thwarted several counterattacks and consolidated new positions, Observatory chief Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
But the air and artillery bombardment continued for an eighth straight day, killing the 13 civilians, the activist group said.
At least nine civilians were killed in shelling and airstrikes Monday.
State news agency SANA said Syrian troops launched rocket attacks on armed groups in northwestern Hama province Tuesday, killing several fighters, but it did not provide any toll.French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his “extreme concern” over the heightened violence. “The humanitarian situation in Syria is critical and no military option is acceptable,” he tweeted Tuesday. “We demand a halt to the violence and support the U.N. in backing a necessary political solution.”
It remains unclear whether the Syrian government and its Russian ally are planning to launch a full-scale assault.
Aron Lund from the U.S. think tank The Century Foundation said that “a limited offensive into Idlib, peeling off a few areas, should be easily within their capabilities.” He said the recapture of two key highways running through Idlib, the M4 and the M5, could be among the “many goals” behind such an operation.
Under the September deal, hard-liners were supposed to withdraw from the planned buffer zone, allowing traffic to once again flow along the two strategic highways, which connect government-held areas with the Turkish border. Turkey has failed, however, to secure the militants’ withdrawal, prompting government forces to take matters into their own hands, Syria specialist Fabrice Balanche said.
Taking the two highways would help Assad boost the recovery of Syria’s nearby second city Aleppo, which remains cut off from most of its countryside and poorly connected to the rest of the country, he told AFP.
“Restoring traffic on these two axes will reduce transport costs to Aleppo,” he said. Retaking the road between the regime’s coastal stronghold of Latakia and Aleppo in particular would cut the rebel-held region in two, making it easier for government forces to recapture its southern part and isolate the militants in the north, Balanche added.