WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) – Syria and its ally, Russia, continued their offensive on Idlib Province and northern Hama Province on Thursday, in advance of talks on Syria to be held Friday in Geneva.
Their assault targets areas of northwestern Syria that had been declared a de-escalation zone in an agreement reached last September between Turkey and Russia.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) denounced Thursday’s attacks as “the most violent day ever since the Russian-Turkish agreement was struck.” It involved 224 airstrikes and 336 other strikes from rockets and artillery, according to the SOHR.
Panos Moumtzis, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator, said that 250,000 people had been displaced, while the barrel bombing from the Syrian regime "is the worst we have seen in 15 months.”
Idlib Province and northern Hama Province remain the only area of western Syria outside of the regime’s rule, even as US-backed forces, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), administer a large part of the country further east.
Already on Monday, as the renewed Syrian-Russian offensive began, Washington strongly protested. “The United States is alarmed by the escalation of violence in Idlib and northern Hama,” State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a written statement.
“Ongoing Russian and regime airstrikes, along with attacks by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other groups connected to Al Qaeda in Syria, continue to destabilize the region, exacerbate the dire humanitarian situation, and cause dozens of civilian death and injuries,” she affirmed.
However, Washington’s criticism did little to stop the attacks, which have only intensified since.
As recently as April 8, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Moscow for his third meeting in as many months with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the two leaders reached an agreement on joint Russian-Turkish patrols in Idlib.
“Another significant step taken with Russia is to cooperate against terrorist acts in Syria,” Erdogan announced in Moscow, following the meeting.
On Monday, Erdogan spoke by phone with Putin in an effort to moderate the Syrian-Russian assault, but with no evident success.
Pro-Syrian press in Beirut report that a major Syrian offensive is imminent.
Some three million civilians now live in Idlib, many of them displaced from other de-escalation zones in the country. Any major Syrian offensive would create a new wave of refugees fleeing into Turkey, which already hosts 3.5 million refugees from the war-torn country.
That could have implications for European politics if the refugees seek to travel there. An earlier flood of Syrian refugees into Europe, as well as those crossing the Mediterranean through war-torn Libya, has fueled the rise of anti-immigrant, right-wing populist movements.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit several European countries next week, and Syria will be a topic of his discussions in Germany. Pompeo is also slated to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The Syrian-Russian offensive comes on the eve of a UN-sponsored meeting in Geneva on Friday of the “Small Group on Syria,” which includes Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the US.
The offensive will certainly be discussed at the meeting, but the Small Group may well find that it lacks significant influence.
Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and currently Senior Fellow at Soran University, advised Kurdistan 24 that US leverage in Syria is very limited, and he attributed that to the Obama administration.
“This began on Obama’s watch,” he said. “They had wonderful goals in Syria, like ousting the Assad regime. But you needed to train and arm a local force to do that, and Obama wasn’t prepared to make the commitment.”
“The real US leverage in Syria,” Davis added, “is east of the Euphrates,” where the SDF controls a third of the country.
“I hope that Trump has come to understand that,” he continued, “and we don’t throw it all away, by rushing to leave.”
Editing by Nadia Riva