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Russian warplanes strike Idlib as rebels brace for assault

Russian air strikes along border between Latakia and Idlib provinces followed rebel attack on government position killing three fighters
National Liberation Front fighters rest in a house in the frontline village of Abu Dali (AFP)

Russia resumed air strikes in northwestern Syria on Tuesday ahead of an expected assault by pro-government forces on rebel-held Idlib province.

Russian warplanes carried out 30 raids targeting 16 areas in the border region between Idlib and Latakia provinces, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the UK-based, pro-opposition monitor.

The raids followed attacks by Syrian rebels on pro-government positions in Latakia which killed three fighters, it added.

Russian and Syrian warplanes bombarded countryside around Jisr al-Shughour on the western edge of Idlib, killing 13 civilians but no fighters, Reuters reported citing the Observatory and a rebel source.

The raids were the first carried out by Russia since mid-August, although pro-government forces have continued to shell rebel positions, the monitor said.

Idlib is the last bastion of a group of an estimated 70,000 rebels who have been corralled in the province as the Syrian government has gradually regained territory claimed by opposition groups since an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.

They include various groups aligned under the banner of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), led by al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch, and the newly formed National Front for Liberation - a Turkish-backed alliance bringing together Ahrar al-Sham, Noureddine al-Zinki and other rebel factions.

Turkey’s army has established a series of observation posts along the border between Idlib and Syrian government-held territory.

The province is also a refuge for hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians who have fled fighting elsewhere in the country or were evacuated there from formerly rebel-held areas including Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta.

The Syrian government and its allies have vowed to “wipe out terrorist groups” in the province.

What you need to know about Idlib
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A Kremlin spokesperson on Tuesday described Idlib as a "pocket of terrorism" and said that Syrian forces were "getting ready to solve this problem".

But Turkey, the UN and the US have all warned that an assault will lead to a new humanitarian crisis in Syria, with UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura stating that a “perfect storm” was looming over the province.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the situation in Syria with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday. The two officials "both agreed that any Assad regime military offensive in Idlib would be an unacceptable, reckless escalation of the conflict in Syria," The US State Department said in a statement.

US President Donald Trump on Monday urged Assad not to “recklessly attack” Idlib.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are due to meet in Tehran on Friday to discuss the situation in Idlib, where Turkey is backing efforts by the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC) opposition alliance to isolate HTS from other rebel groups.

The SNC's leader, Abdulrahman Mustafa, told Middle East Eye on Monday that opposition groups were trying to entice fighters away from HTS.

“We are trying to have all the groups in the HTS shift to the National Liberation Front and dissolve HTS. We will see what will happen next," he said.

But Mustafa said that opposition fighters stood ready to resist an assault by pro-government forces and would fight alongside HTS if necessary.

"We are against all terror groups but when we are all under threat, how can we fight against any other group?" he said.

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"Russia says they are waiting for the opposition groups to split from HTS, but we know what it means. It did the same thing in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo; eventually it forced millions of people to leave home.

"The real aim is not separating them, the aim is to shape the country on its own terms. But this won’t bring stability and peace to Syria,” he added.

HTS fighters, many of whom previously belonged to the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's disbanded affiliate in Syria, have fought alongside other Syrian rebel groups throughout the Syrian civil war, despite periodic bouts of in-fighting.

Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the leader of HTS, has publicly warned rebel groups against relying on Turkish mediation.

In a video on Facebook on 21 August, he said "the weapons of the revolution and jihad... are a red line on which concessions are unacceptable, and they will never be put on the negotiation table" and warned the rebels in Idlib “not to rely on Turkey’s monitoring posts because the political positions may change at any moment”.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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