It appears that the final major battle of the Syrian civil war is underway as Russian and Syrian jets pounded rebel positions on the edge of Ibid province.
State-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said the government was retaliating against overnight shelling from rebel-held areas on a government-held town in Hama province, south of Idlib. The shelling late Friday in Mhradah killed nine civilians, according to state media.
But the government and Russian raids targeted a wide swath of rebel-held area in the southern edge of the rebel-held enclave that includes most of Idlib province and northern Hama province.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more than 30 air raids Saturday on a number of towns and villages in southwestern Idlib and Hama province. The area, which has been targeted over the last few days, overlooks government-controlled areas.
The intense raids forced schools to close in Khan Sheikhoun, an area under attack, according to the Observatory.
What’s the big deal about Idib? There are three million people crammed into the province, most of them displaced people from other parts of Syria. There may be 30,000 rebels in Ibid with another 10,000 hardcore terrorists belonging to one of a dozen militias. Taking Ibid province will mean a virtual end to the civil war for Assad, even though it is likely the fighting will go on for years.
As in all asymmetrical warfare these days, the rebels and the terrorists are using civilians as human shields, hiding among the ruins and in small towns and villages. Levering them out of their strongholds could cost hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, according to UN relief agencies.
In previous assaults on rebel strongholds in Aleppo, Daara, and others, the defeated rebels were eventually allowed to leave, usually for another stronghold, and frequently Idib was their destination.
There are no more Idibs to which the rebels can flee. This will be their last stand.
The U.S. and other Western countries apparently have solid intel that President Assad is planning to use chemical weapons in Idib. This will likely be met by a strong U.S. response.
Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said no decision had been made by the United States to employ military force in response to a future chemical attack in Syria.
“But we are in a dialogue, a routine dialogue, with the president to make sure he knows where we are with regard to planning in the event that chemical weapons are used,” he told a small group of reporters during a trip to India. Dunford later added: “He expects us to have military options and we have provided updates to him on the development of those military options.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has massed his army and allied forces on the front lines in the northwest, and Russian planes have joined his bombardment of rebels there, in a prelude to a widely expected assault despite objections from Turkey.
This week, a top U.S. envoy said there was “lots of evidence” that chemical weapons were being prepared by Syrian government forces in Idlib.
Yesterday in Tehran, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appealed to Russia and Iran for a cease-fire in Ibid to allow civilians a way out.
Turkey — which has long backed some rebel groups — fears an all-out assault will trigger another major refugee crisis on its southern border.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Russian and Iranian counterparts: “We don’t want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath.”
“Any attack on Idlib would result in a catastrophe. Any fight against terrorists requires methods based on time and patience.”
However, Russia and Iran are allied to Syria’s President Assad, and say jihadist groups in Idlib must be wiped out.
Russian air strikes, and thousands of fighters backed by Iran, have helped the Syrian military attack rebel areas.
At Friday’s meeting, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani argued that “fighting terrorism in Idlib is an unavoidable part of the mission of restoring peace and stability to Syria”.
Meanwhile Mr Putin said “the legitimate Syrian government has a right and must eventually take control of its entire national territory”.
So it appears that the slaughter is unavoidable. Assad wants Ibid back and Putin and the Iranians seem well disposed to help him get it — no matter what the cost in civilian lives.