War “depletion” in Idlib, the last bastion of opponents of Assad

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (VOP TODAY NEWS) — Syria and its ally Russia have foiled areas of northwestern Syria, targeting medical facilities, schools and markets, in an escalation that reflects analysts’ determination to regain control of the region, the last stronghold of its opponents.

Opponents describe the escalation as “genocide,” while the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Friday condemned “international indifference” as the bombing continued, forcing more than 400,000 people to flee to safer areas.

Idlib and its environs have been under Syrian and Russian bombardment since the end of April, although the area has been covered by a Russian-Turkish agreement since September, which provided for the establishment of a demilitarized zone and managed to maintain calm for five months.

“The exhaustion is frightening through the direct targeting of civilians, markets, health facilities and infrastructure,” said researcher Nawar Oliver of the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Studies.

This is primarily according to Oliver, “to pressure the factions and their popular support, after the region has all the Syrian opposition and the families of faction fighters.” Therefore, “any pressure on the incubator will be reflected on the factions.”

The air escalation, according to Oliver, “will serve any ground work in the future,” as the Russian-Turkish agreement “led to delay or stop the ground offensive of the regime temporarily” on the region.

Idlib, controlled by the Sham Liberation Organization (formerly the Nasra Front), is home to less influential Islamist factions, the most prominent areas outside the control of Damascus. Some 3 million people live in parts of neighboring provinces, half of them displaced from other areas, including tens of thousands of fighters and civilians who have refused to remain in their areas and settle settlement deals with Damascus.

Since the end of April, the United Nations has recorded 39 attacks against health facilities and medical personnel. At least 50 schools were damaged by the shelling.

“This property is civilian, and it seems very unlikely that it has been hit because of the ongoing pattern of such attacks,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet said in a statement on Friday.

“Intentional attacks against civilians are a war crime”.

– “Last Focus” –

The Syrian and Russian planes focus specifically on the southern countryside of Idlib and neighboring northern Hama, where fierce battles are waged between the regime and the factions, killing hundreds of fighters from both sides.

“Russia presents the regime as regaining its legitimacy. The two sides portray Idlib as the last of the battles and the last to prevent the regime from controlling the terrorists’ pockets,” Oliver said.

Government forces now control more than 60 percent of the country. Idlib and areas of control of Kurdish forces in north-east Syria are the most prominent areas beyond the control of Damascus. The latter began talks with the Kurds have not yet yielded a result.

“Russia is pressing today more than ever to consistently reintegrate Syria under Syrian President Bashar al-Asad,” Syrian researcher Samuel Ramani told AFP.

Despite the ferocity of the fighting in the northern Hama countryside, which is the southern gate of Idlib province, the regime’s forces did not make any strategic progress towards the depth of Idlib. As battles and raids continue, many towns and villages in the northern villages of Hama and neighboring southern Idlib are empty.

Analysts attribute the failure to Turkey’s military support to factions in north-western Syria, where many of its troops are deployed at checkpoints under an agreement with Russia.

Russia wants Turkey to “stop providing military assistance to the factions” as “hampering Assad’s progress,” Ramani said. It also fears that this support will help it “challenge Assad’s authority” further if it remains stuck in Idlib.

On the other hand, according to Ramani, it seems clear that “Ankara supports the factions more enthusiastically than it has long been.”

– “The influence of Turki Akbar” –

Turkey fears that any real attack by the regime forces on Idlib will lead to the displacement of more Syrians towards its territory, after thousands of families gathered in camps and fields near its border following the recent escalation.

The escalation in Idlib is likely to dominate a new round of Astana talks next week in Kazakhstan in the presence of representatives from both sides of the conflict, along with Turkey, Russia and Iran.

“The destruction of Idlib’s civilian infrastructure makes the population more dependent on Turkish support,” says Nicholas Hieras, a researcher at the new US Security Center.

Ankara also aspires to “stabilize Idlib so that the refugees can start to return to it, which means greater control and influence of Turkey.”

Turkey, which is currently in talks with the United States to build a buffer zone between its borders and Kurdish forces’ control areas in northern Syria, hosts about 3.5 million Syrians.

While it is not clear whether Turkey, the most recent ally of the opposition, is ready to compromise in the near term in Syria, Heras believes that “Moscow can coexist with the growing Turkish influence in Idlib in the short term, but Damascus wants Turkey out of Syria now.”

But the Syrian government’s restoration of control of Idlib will not be easy.

“Control of Idlib will be a slow war of attrition for the lion,” Ramani said.

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