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Syria Last Rebel Stronghold Girds for Regime Assault

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Syria Last Rebel Stronghold Girds for Regime Assault

BEIRUT—Syrias last opposition stronghold is bracing for a regime military offensive, after airstrikes and shelling killed dozens there in recent days and the United Nations warned of a possible humanitarian disaster. Syrian regime airstrikes and artillery attacks have pounded parts of the northwestern province of Idlib and surrounding areas in the past week, killing and injuring scores of civilians, according to rebels there and the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue organization. Shelling continued Friday on at least one town in Idlib province, according to activists. The regime also dropped leaflets in the area urging surrender. “Until when will you and your families live in fear and anxiety? How long will your children remain without hope or future?” one of the leaflets read, according to the independent Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Such strikes and leaflets have usually preceded more brutal offensives by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad as they have methodically recaptured one opposition area after another in the past two years. Most of the rebels and civilians who fled the Russia- and Iran-backed regime assaults elsewhere in the country were displaced to Idlib and neighboring provinces. “Were in a state of readiness and we expect the regime to try and advance,” said Capt. Abdulsalaam Abdulrazaq, a rebel commander and officer who defected from the Syrian military. He added that rebel factions had reinforced their defenses and are preparing to fight. At least hundreds of civilians, many of them already displaced once or more, have fled in recent days toward the Syrian border with Turkey or into northern Aleppo province, an area controlled by Turkish-backed rebels and protected by a de facto no-fly zone. The Syrian regime has long vowed to retake every inch of the country, which it reiterated again this week, as Mr. Assad tightens his grip on the entire country after emerging victorious in the more than seven-year conflict. In recent months, it has retaken the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta and the southern provinces and is now turning its attention to the north—where the battle is complicated by the interests of several foreign powers. The northwest is under a trilateral cease-fire deal brokered last year between Turkey, Russia and Iran. But that has not prevented the regime and Russia from launching assaults on other areas ostensibly protected by that same agreement, including Eastern Ghouta. The U.N., which has called Idlib the biggest refugee camp on earth, said this week that a military operation there would endanger more than three million civilians living in the densely populated area—about half of whom have been displaced by violence from elsewhere in the country. Many live in ramshackle tent camps that provide no protection from bombs and rockets. “The war cannot be allowed to go to Idlib…it is the place where people fled,” Jan Egeland, head of the U.N. task force for humanitarian aid to Syria, said last week. “So this area is screaming for diplomatic solutions… knowing that there wouldnt be another Idlib to be evacuated to.” Turkey and Russias foreign ministers met this week in part to discuss the situation in Syria and what precautions could be taken in Idlib, but it wasnt clear whether any agreement on Idlib was reached. Bombarding all of Idlib because there are some terrorist groups there is tantamount to a “massacre,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a news conference, according to Turkish state media. He was referring to armed groups affiliated or formerly affiliated with al Qaeda that have been designated as terror groups. Turkey has erected 12 observation posts along the frontlines with regime forces, as part of the cease-fire agreement. While the monitoring posts have not prevented ongoing regime airstrikes, it would make a ground advance far trickier. Residents believed the Turkish presence would guarantee their protection from a regime assault backed by Russia. People began opening more restaurants and businesses, filling the markets and keeping the lights on at night, one resident said.


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Added On: August 17, 2018, 5:44 pm EDT

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August 17, 2018, 5:44 pm EDT

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