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Assad's forces destroy hospital as they step up attacks on Idlib

Despite the ceasefire, the Syrian government and Russia have bombed an important medical centre
A man walks through rubble in a hallway of a hospital that was hit by a reported air strike in the Syrian village of Shinan, about 30 kilometres south of Idlib in the northwestern Idlib province (AFP)

Pro-Syrian government forces destroyed the al-Ikhlas hospital in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, part of a major military escalation by Damascus and its ally Russia in the country’s northwest.

"The hospital, which serves 12 villages with a population of about 90,000, is out of service and completely destroyed," Dr Zuhair al-Karat, the director of the hospital, told Middle East Eye.

Located in the village of Shinan, between Idlib city and Maarat al-Numan, the hospital specialises in gynaecology, neonatal care, paediatrics and routine vaccine services.

"At 1am, a Russian warplane launched two raids on the hospital with high-explosive rockets," Karat told MEE.

"The hospital staff barely survived the first raid, and the second raid destroyed the entire hospital equipment," he added.

Three medical staff workers were wounded, according to the Civil Defence search and rescue team commonly known as the White Helmets.

“It is not the first time,” Karat said. “The Syrian air force targeted the hospital months after it opened in 2017.”

Ongoing attacks

Hospitals have long been a target for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces during Syria’s eight-year conflict, and since the turn of the year, there has been an uptick in attacks targeting medical centres and White Helmet rescuers in northwest Syria.

"Damascus’ forces and their Russian ally have targeted 40 hospitals and medical points since 28 April," Idlib's health directorate said on Facebook.

"After the destruction of the hospital, Russian and Syrian warplanes turned to the bombing of the city of Jisr al-Shughur, west of Idlib," activist Mohammed Rashid told MEE.

White Helmets worker captures moment of being wounded by an airstrike
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"The attacks also targeted villages west of Aleppo, and north of Latakia, bordering Idlib.

"One civilian was killed in Jisr al-Shughur, and eight others were killed in the village of al-Sahara, west of Aleppo, as a result of the attacks," said Rashid, who lives north of Hama.

The White Helmets said that the organisations' Jisr al-Shughur headquarters was decommissioned after being targeted by Syrian air strikes.

"Warplanes attacked the area with five missiles at once targeting civilian homes and public facilities, including a school and a women's White Helmet centre," the organisation said on Facebook.

Idlib is home to more than three million people, one-third of whom are displaced from elsewhere in the country after fleeing fighting and bombardment.

Ceasefire

Officially, Idlib is subject to a unilateral ceasefire declared by Russia on 31 August after pro-government forces took control of the city of Khan Sheikhoun in the province’s south.

Nevertheless, aerial attacks have continued sporadically, along with artillery and rocket shelling, increasing the number of victims in war, estimated to be around half a million.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) activist group, 77 civilians, including 17 children and nine women, have been killed since Russia declared a ceasefire.

Idlib and its environs are the last pieces of Syrian territory in rebel hands, and in April Assad’s forces stepped up their attempts to retake the province, with 630,000 civilians displaced between then and the latest ceasefire, the SNHR said.

Fearing renewed shelling, those displaced have been reticent to return to their homes in areas of Idlib previously targeted, Said Fadel Abdel Ghani, chairman and founder of the SNHR, told MEE.

"The areas that have been bombed in the last three days are almost empty of the population," he added.

Idlib governorate is controlled by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance of militant factions led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the former Syrian arm of al-Qaeda.

However, Turkish-backed rebels are deployed on some fronts surrounding Idlib.

International mediation

As part of a de-escalation effort in Syria, the Turkish army constructed 12 checkpoints around Idlib in the middle of last year, in cooperation with Russia.

However, Syrian government forces with Russian support are trying to take control of the strategic The Kupina Hill in north Latakia, west of Idlib.

The Kupina is the first line of defence for the city of Jisr al-Shughur, and fierce battles are raging there daily.

As the ceasefire agreements continue to be permanently violated, UN efforts to pave the way for a political solution in Syria have continued.

'The attacks on northern Syria are an indication that Damascus is not ready for any political process'

- Said Fadel Abdel Ghani, SNHR

The Constitutional Committee tasked with drafting a new UN-sponsored Syrian constitution began meetings on Tuesday to set the agenda, after a four-day round of meetings.

The committee is composed of 150 members representing the government and the opposition.

Despite the convening of the Constitutional Committee, pro-government forces are continuing their aggression, Abdel Ghani noted.

"The attacks on northern Syria are an indication that Damascus is not ready for any political process," he said.

"Damascus’ forces continue to violate the current constitution. There is no guarantee that Damascus will abide by the new constitution."