Tag Archives: Syria

U.S. says airstrikes target facilities in Syria used by Iran-backed militias

The United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups. The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition troops.

The airstrikes were the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen U.S. military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend U.S. troops in Iraq.

“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington. Speaking shortly after the airstrikes, he added, “We’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” referring to a Feb. 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition personnel.

Austin said he recommended the action to Biden.

“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”

‘Operation sends an unambiguous message’

John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson shown in a file photo from earlier this month, said the airstrikes were a ‘proportionate military response’ to a prior rocket attack that killed a civilian contractor in Iraq. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

Earlier, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. action was a “proportionate military response” taken together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said. “At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

Kirby said the U.S. airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups,” including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. The U.S. has blamed Kataib Hezbollah for numerous attacks targeting U.S. personnel and interests in Iraq in the past.

Further details were not immediately available.

Followed rocket attack in Iraq

A man stands near the scene of a rocket attack that targeted an airbase near Irbil, Iraq, on Feb. 15. The same attack left a civilian contractor dead and reportedly injured five others, including a U.S. soldier. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Biden administration officials condemned the Feb. 15 rocket attack near the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region, but as recently as this week officials indicated they had not determined for certain who carried it out. Officials have noted that in the past, Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups have been responsible for numerous rocket attacks that targeted U.S. personnel or facilities in Iraq.

Kirby had said Tuesday that Iraq is in charge of investigating the Feb. 15 attack.

“Right now, we’re not able to give you a certain attribution as to who was behind these attacks, what groups, and I’m not going to get into the tactical details of every bit of weaponry used here,” Kirby said. “Let’s let the investigations complete and conclude, and then when we have more to say, we will.”

A little-known Shia militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the Feb. 15 attack. A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone appeared to target the U.S. Embassy compound, but no one was hurt.

Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade.

WATCH | Why the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal matters to Biden’s Mideast strategy:

Joe Biden has promised a return to diplomacy and to restart talks around the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. But changes to the political landscape in the Middle East could make that difficult. 2:01

The frequency of attacks by Shia militia groups against U.S. targets in Iraq diminished late last year ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration, though now Iran is pressing America to return to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal. The U.S. under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.

Trump had said the death of a U.S. contractor would be a red line and provoke U.S. escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.

U.S. forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.

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UN-backed experts point to new war crimes in Syria conflict

Investigators commissioned by the UN’s top human rights body say Syrian government forces and their Russian allies bombarded civilian sites in Idlib province indiscriminately, while rebels tortured and executed civilians in recent months, acts amounting to war crimes on both sides.

The findings of the latest report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria span the period from November to June. It’s part of a nearly decade-long effort to chronicle human rights abuses and violations in hopes that perpetrators might one day be brought to justice over the country’s devastating nine-year civil war.

The report focused on Idlib province, the last major rebel-held bastion in Syria and the site of an exodus of over a million civilians. They were displaced amid an intensified Russian and Syrian government offensive, as well as torture and other rights violations by UN-designated terrorist groups.

“The commission has said time and again that Idlib is a ticking time bomb — and this report lays out what human suffering ensues after a partial detonation,” commission chair Paulo Pinheiro told reporters. “The people of Idlib are trapped, scarred by fighting and abuses by all sides over the course of the conflict, and forced to live in terror.”

The exodus of civilians took place over several months, in the run-up to a ceasefire in March that has been largely holding.

WATCH | Migrants stuck in the middle of Syrian violence, border showdown:

Thousands of migrants are stuck in the middle of ongoing violence in their home country, Syria, and the border standoff between Turkey and Greece. 2:16

The commission reported on over 50 attacks that impacted hospitals, schools, markets and homes with both air and ground attacks — some involving the use of cluster munitions. It said in a statement these attacks amount to “war crimes of launching indiscriminate attacks and deliberate attacks on protected objects.”

The main al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, “detained, tortured and executed civilians expressing dissenting opinions, including journalists,” the commission said. “HTS, moreover, indiscriminately shelled densely populated civilian areas, spreading terror amongst civilians living in government-held areas.”

The commission is expected to present the report to the UN Human Rights Council on July 14-15.

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‘I don’t think it’s going well’: Turks see little upside to country’s military involvement in Syria

A large billboard that towers above one of the freeways sluicing across the vast and majestic city of Istanbul carries the name of Turkey’s latest military operation in Syria and asks the Turkish people a single question:

“Who would not sacrifice their life for this paradise of a country?” 

That’s a line from Turkey’s national anthem and a not-so-subtle pull on patriotic heartstrings for a country still reeling from the loss of so many soldiers to fighting next door in Syria.

Few Turks would miss the deliberate link between an anthem originally dedicated to “Turkey’s heroic army” and an active military operation today that is causing increased domestic anxiety.

“That’s how it’s being marketed,” said political analyst Soli Ozel, talking about Operation Spring Shield, which was launched on March 1 after at least 36 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike at the end of February that has been attributed to Russian planes backing Syrian forces.

“Who buys? I certainly wouldn’t buy that.”

Those deaths bring the number of Turkish soldiers killed in fighting since January to about 60. For a nation whose identity is intrinsically tied to the military through its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, these losses are a psychological blow.

“It is our pride,” said 22-year-old student Hussein Bildek when asked about the military. “We are a soldier nation. I can’t [explain] that in English, but it’s in our blood. I believe that.”

‘You see the situation here’

Turkey has spent the past three months building up thousands of troops in Syria’s Idlib province, in a bid to halt the Syrian army’s brutal advance on the last rebel enclave in a civil war now entering its 10th year.

That advance has driven an estimated one million people from their homes and right up next to the Turkish border since December. Turkey is already hosting nearly four million Syrian refugees and fears it will be forced to take in even more.  

Hussein Bildek, a 22-year-old student, said that Turkey is ‘a soldier nation. I can’t [explain] that in English, but it’s in our blood.’ (CBC)

For Hussein Bildek, that was reason enough for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to send more troops into Syria.

“We had to,” Bildek said. “Because we have four million refugees from Syria and you see the situation here. We have a really bad economy right now, and have to fix it somehow.”

But the operations in Idlib leading up to and including Operation Spring Shield brought Turkey into almost direct military confrontation with Russia.

Turkey has been backing Syrian rebels opposed to Bashar al Assad’s regime in Damascus while Russian support for al-Assad turned the tide of the war in his favour. Despite a subsequent ceasefire, few believe it will hold.

Events have highlighted the tightrope Erdogan is walking between East and West, and especially between his NATO partners and Russia.

“Whether you acknowledge it or not, you had a fight with Russia in Syria,” said Ozel, addressing Erdogan. “You’re calling for your [NATO] partners to send you Patriot missiles. Well, so much for the advisability of the [Russian-made] S-400 purchase and all the rest.”

Dealing with surge of refugees

It all contributes to what Ozel believes is a drop in support for Turkey’s military presence in Idlib, especially compared to an operation last fall when Turkey angered its NATO partners by taking on Syrian Kurds, who many Western nations considered allies in the battle against the Islamic State.

“The thing is, in the previous Turkish military operations [in Syria], whether in the west or in the south or in the east, there was an element of fighting the PKK,” said Ozel, referring to the Kurdistan Workers Party. “And that justifies anything.”

The separatist PKK has fought a long and bloody guerrilla war inside Turkey, and Ankara accuses Kurdish forces in northern Syria of helping them.

This funeral tent was erected in Istanbul to commemorate a Turkish soldier killed in Syria. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Turkey suspended social media for 16 hours after the late-February airstrike on its soldiers in a move critics say was aimed at quelling domestic debate over the cost of Turkey’s war in Syria, human or otherwise.

An Amnesty International report last fall described Turkey as the world’s largest jailor of journalists, many imprisoned after a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016. 

Ozel said it’s uncommon to see media coverage of families mourning the loss of Turkish soldiers killed on duty. “We don’t see the stories of those families who are shattered by the loss of their son. There was one instance I think a father said, ‘Stop the killing of our soldiers.'”

Turkey changed its conscription laws last year making it possible for those who could afford it to buy their way out of a six-month mandatory service.

Eighteen-year-old Rojin Yilmaz, a Turkish citizen of Kurdish heritage, expressed the internal conflicts many Turks seem to feel about their country’s place in the world today. 

“I don’t think it’s going well. Every day, we are watching or reading on the news that we are losing a soldier,” she said.

“It was a wrong decision to accept [the Syrian refugees] inside Turkey. Because after that, things started going bad. Something changed in our country after their arrival.”

‘We are stuck between two worlds’

Last month, Erdogan opened a new chapter of hostility with Turkey’s former foe and current NATO partner Greece by opening up his northern border with Greece and inviting refugees in the country to leave for Europe.

Eighteen-year-old Rojin Yilmaz, a Turkish citizen of Kurdish heritage, said, ‘Every day, we are watching or reading on the news that we are losing a soldier.’ (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

This led to unruly scenes on the border, with Turkish police ferrying migrants to crossings and Greece using aggressive means to turn them back while accusing Erdogan of weaponizing the needy.  

Ankara argued the EU had failed to deliver on parts of its 2016 agreement to stem the tide of mainly Syrian refugees through Greece in exchange for financial aid and other incentives.

The standoff led to a video conference this week between Erdogan and his French, German and British counterparts, where progress on a revision of the 2016 plan was on the table ahead of an EU summit planned for March 26.

Analysts believe one thing Ankara has in its favour is that NATO and the European Union appear to need Turkey as much as Russia does. But it does little to ease the feelings of many Turks who believe their country’s place in the world is little understood and one of perpetual isolation.  

“There is Russia. There is USA. There are other European countries, so there are a lot of players,” said Bildek, the student.  “We are stuck between two worlds. Between West and East.”

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At least 16 killed by airstrikes in Idlib, Syria war monitor says

Airstrikes on rebel-controlled northwestern Syrian killed at least 16 people Tuesday, including two students and two teachers, opposition activists said, as government forces closed in on a town considered a symbol of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

The violence came as Turkey’s president announced that a Russian delegation would arrive the following day to resume talks aimed at easing tensions in the northwest Idlib region. The area is the country’s last rebel-controlled stronghold and the Syrian government’s military campaign there, backed by Russia, has created a humanitarian catastrophe with nearly one million people displaced from their homes since Dec. 1.

Most of them are now crowding areas close to the border with Turkey, living in camps, shelters, abandoned homes and in open fields. It is the largest single displacement of Syria’s war, now in its ninth year.

In response to the upsurge in violence, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the UN has launched a revised appeal for $ 500 million US to assist at least 1.1 million people in need. He said discussions are under way with Turkey double the number of trucks crossing the border with humanitarian aid from 50 to 100.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said no consensus was reached for a four-way meeting next month between the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Turkey meant to address the crisis. Erdogan said that Russia’s Vladimir Putin may still come to Turkey next week for a bilateral meeting, but the Kremlin has so far not confirmed a March 5 visit by the Russian president to Turkey.

Tensions have been running high between Turkey and Russia, which support opposing sides of the war in Syria. The Syrian government offensive has shattered a fragile ceasefire agreement that Turkey and Russia reached in 2018 and Turkey has threatened military action unless Syrian forces retreat to positions they held before the advance by the end of February.

“Russia supports Syria at the highest level,” Erdogan told reporters before departing for a visit to Azerbaijan. “Even if they deny it, we have evidence. We are forced to be in this fight.”

A man helps an injured youth in the town of Maarat Misreen in Idlib on Tuesday. (Mohammed Al-Rifai/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkish officials had reported small progress in two previous rounds of Turkey-Russia meetings but said the results were not satisfactory.

Turkey had set up a dozen observation posts as part of the 2018 agreement, many of which are now behind Syrian government lines. Ankara also sent thousands of additional troops into Idlib in recent weeks and has frequently engaged in military exchanges with Syrian troops.

At least 16 Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes this month during the Syrian government’s push on the last rebel stronghold.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a news conference at the State Department on Tuesday that the Syrian government’s offensive “only heightens the risk of conflict with our NATO ally, Turkey,” adding that the U.S. was working together with Turkey “on seeing what we can do together.”

He called for a permanent ceasefire, saying “the regime will not be able to obtain military victory.”

Airstrikes in separate locations

The fighting appeared to intensify, however, with dozens of airstrikes reported Tuesday.

Opposition activists and a war monitor said at least 16 people were killed in Idlib province Tuesday. They included two students and two teachers who were killed in Idlib city when a school was struck with a cluster bomb-filled rocket, and 10 civilians who were killed in airstrikes on the town of Maarat Misreen in Idlib province. The deaths were reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Idlib-based opposition activist Hadi Abdullah.

LISTEN l Front Burner, from Feb. 21, on the crisis in Idlib:

A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Syria’s Idlib province. Nearly one million people have been displaced since a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive began in December, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee to ever-shrinking camps along the border with Turkey. Today on Front Burner, we talk to CNN senior correspondent Arwa Damon, who was just in Idlib, about what she saw on the ground. “These are families that have been displaced multiple times,” she tells Jayme. “What makes this time so much more different is that it’s almost as if there is a sense of finality to it … they’re going to reach a point where they can’t run anymore.” 22:01

To the south of Nairab, Syrian troops captured two new villages, raising to 10 the number of areas captured in the province since Monday, according to state media.

The capture of Maaret Tamater and Maaret Seen brings government forces closer to Kafranbel, a major opposition-held town that gained attention in the early years of the Syrian conflict during weekly anti-government protests because of humorous English-language banners carried by protesters.

The banners were initiated by anti-government journalist Raed Fares, who was shot dead in the town along with his friend Hammoud al-Juneid in November 2018. Fares was a harsh critic of Islamic militants that control much of Idlib.

In Damascus, one civilian was killed and two others were injured by bombs planted in two cars near the Umayyad square in the Syrian capital Damascus, state-run news agency SANA said. It was not immediately clear who the target was.

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What you need to know about the recent escalation of war and humanitarian crisis in Syria

Syrian rebels and Turkish forces fought government troops in northwest Syria on Thursday as Russian warplanes struck back in a sharp escalation of an intense battle over the last rebel bastions of Syria. 

The recent escalation in fighting has left one million civilians — mostly women and children — to desperately flee the relentless bombing and fighting. With nowhere to go, families are sleeping outside or in thin tents in sub-zero weather. 

Humanitarian groups say more than 300 people, including children and babies as young as seven months old, have died just since the beginning of the year. 

How we got here 

The government of President Bashar al-Assad is trying to recapture the opposition-held province of Idlib.

Syrian troops backed by Russian forces have been battling since December to eradicate the last rebel strongholds in the region in a nine-year war that has killed an estimated 400,000 Syrians and left much of the country in ruins.

Rebel and jihadist groups that hold the area have been trying to overthrow Assad since 2011. 

Idlib is strategically important to the government. It borders Turkey to the north and provides access via highways from the city of Aleppo to the capital Damascus and the Mediterranean city of Latakia.

Turkey and Russia have closely co-ordinated their moves in recent years in Idlib province. Turkey maintains observation posts in northern Syria that were set up to monitor a 2018 ceasefire agreement with Russia. The truce collapsed in late 2019, leading to the current Syrian offensive, backed by Russia.

Russian officials have said they hold Turkey responsible for the collapse of the ceasefire deal, saying Ankara had not held up its end to rein in militants who continued attacking Syrian and Russian targets.

Turkey rejects the Russian assertion, saying Ankara was making progress against radical groups in Idlib when the Syrian government launched its current offensive.

Recent developments

The latest Syrian government offensive began Dec. 1.

Syrian troops supported by Russian warplanes and special forces are fighting the rebels in their strongholds in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in what could be one of the final chapters of the nearly decade-old civil war.

Syria claims it is going after terrorists and was forced into action. But the UN said airstrikes have hit a number of hospitals and displaced persons camps. 

Nearly one million civilians have fled from airstrikes and artillery barrages toward the frontier, overwhelming relief agencies and alarming Turkey, which is struggling to cope with the 3.6 million Syrian refugees already camped inside its borders.

Ankara sent in thousands of additional troops and armoured vehicles in recent weeks, vowing to halt the government’s advance.

“We are delivering our final warnings. We have not reached the desired results as yet,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday. “The operation in Idlib is a matter of time. We could enter [Idlib] suddenly one night.”

International response

The UN refugee chief, Filippo Grandi, called for a halt to the fighting to allow hundreds of thousands of trapped and destitute civilians to move to places of safety.

UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for an immediate ceasefire.

French President Emmanuel Macron called on the UN Security Council and European Union to take action.

“Today, and for several weeks now, one of the worst humanitarian dramas has been unfolding,” Macron told reporters as he arrived at an EU summit in Brussels.

Hundreds of thousands of fleeing civilians are seeking shelter by huddling in thin tents in sub-zero weather. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Notable quotes 

“Many [civilians] are on foot or on the backs of trucks in below-freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow. They are moving into increasingly crowded areas they think will be safer. But in Idlib, nowhere is safe.”

– Mark Lowcock, UN humanitarian chief

“Children and families are caught between the violence, the biting cold, the lack of food and the desperate living conditions. Such abject disregard for the safety and well-being of children and families is beyond the pale and must not go on.”

Henrietta Ford, executive director of the UN’s children agency

“The sheer quantity of attacks on hospitals, medical facilities and schools would suggest they cannot all be accidental.” 

 Rupert Colville, UN human rights spokesperson

(CBC News)

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Turkish offensive in northern Syria only ‘a matter of time,’ Erdogan says

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday a Turkish military operation to push back a Syrian government offensive against rebel strongholds in northwest Syria was now only “a matter of time” after talks with Russia failed to halt the assault.

Turkish troops have already massed inside Syria ready to act and more were heading to the border area.

The Kremlin, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said a confrontation between Turkish and Syrian forces would be a “worst-case scenario” and Russia would keep working to prevent the situation from worsening.

Syrian troops supported by Russian warplanes and special forces have been battling since December to eradicate the last rebel bastions in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in what could be one of the final chapters of the nine-year-old civil war.

Nearly one million civilians have fled from air strikes and artillery barrages toward the frontier, overwhelming relief agencies and alarming Turkey, which is struggling to cope with the 3.6 million Syrian refugees already camped inside its borders.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses parliament, in Ankara on Wednesday. Erdogan said that time was running up for Syrian government forces to retreat from Idlib province and warned of an ‘imminent’ Turkish intervention to force the retreat. (Burhan Ozbilici/The Associated Press)

Speaking to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party on Wednesday, Erdogan said Turkey was determined to make Idlib a secure zone even while talks with Moscow continued. Several rounds of diplomacy had failed to reach an agreement so far, he said.

“We are entering the last days for the regime to stop its hostility in Idlib. We are making our final warnings,” said Erdogan, whose country has the second-largest army in NATO.

“Turkey has made every preparation to carry out its own operational plans. I say that we can come at any point. In other words, the Idlib offensive is only a matter of time.”

The Turkish leader on Saturday appeared to move forward the end-of-February deadline for a Syrian withdrawal from Idlib that he had previously stated.

Assad, whose family dynasty has ruled Syria for nearly half a century, has showed no sign of bowing to the demand, saying on Monday that his military gains presaged the eventual defeat of his foes. They include Turkish-backed rebels and jihadist militants.

An opposition military source told Reuters that 15,000 Turkish soldiers were now in northwest Syria after numerous convoys of reinforcements and weaponry had poured into the territory in recent days.

“You can’t imagine the scale of Turkish reinforcements, half of Reyhanli is now full of Turkish commandoes ready to enter Syria,” he said, referring to a Turkish border town. “They are readying their forces for zero hour, operations are expected to start any time.”

‘No shelter is now safe’

Ankara and Moscow signed an agreement in 2018 to establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib allowing both sides to set up observation posts. Since the escalation in the conflict, both sides have accused each other of flouting the agreement.

In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syrian forces were upholding previous agreements but also reacting to provocations.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also said: “If we talk about an operation against legitimate Syrian authorities and armed forces, it is of course a worst-case scenario.”

Internally displaced people ride with their belongings in Afrin, Syria on Tuesday. Close to 900,000 people, most of them women and children, have fled their homes in dreadful winter conditions since December, according to the United Nations. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Russia has a naval base at Tartus and an airbase at Hmeimim. Its war planes launched an air campaign in Syria in 2015, turning the tide of the war in Assad’s favour.

The recent airstrikes in the northwest have hit hospitals and camps for displaced people, the United Nations has said. Close to 900,000 people, most of them women and children, have fled their homes in dreadful winter conditions since December in the biggest displacement of the war.

In the past week the Syrian army has taken full control of dozens of towns in the Aleppo countryside and the M5 highway linking Damascus to Aleppo.

The United Nation human rights chief urged Syrian government forces and their allies to allow safe corridors in conflict areas in northwestern Syria.

Michelle Bachelet told reporters in Geneva it was “cruel beyond belief” that civilians live under plastic sheeting in freezing conditions while getting bombed.

Many of the civilians are sleeping in open fields and under trees in freezing temperatures.

“No shelter is now safe,” Bachelet said. “And as the government offensive continues and people are forced into smaller and smaller pockets, I fear even more people will be killed.”

Over 700,000 civilians have tried to flee fighting in Syria’s north-west Idlib province since December, but with a closed Turkish border, people are effectively trapped. 7:06

About half the region’s population had already fled other parts of Syria, and displacement refugee camps are full. Aid organizations, including the UN World Food Program, have been forced to stop food distribution temporarily because the fighting has disrupted the movement of trucks bringing supplies to the region.

“Children and families are caught between the violence, the biting cold, the lack of food and the desperate living conditions. Such abject disregard for the safety and well-being of children and families is beyond the pale and must not go on,” said Henrietta Ford, executive director of the UN’s children agency.

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Civilians fleeing, dying as UN charges Syria and Russia are deliberately targeting them

Government air strikes have hit hospitals and refugee camps in northwest Syria and killed about 300 civilians as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces press an assault against the last rebel stronghold, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

UN officials said relief agencies were overwhelmed by the humanitarian crisis as nearly one million civilians, most of them women and children, had fled toward the Turkish border in bitter winter conditions to escape the onslaught.

“Civilians fleeing the fighting are being squeezed into areas without safe shelter that are shrinking in size by the hour. And still they are bombed. They simply have nowhere to go,” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said.

Syrian and Russian warplanes meanwhile kept up raids on the town of Darat Izza in Aleppo province on Tuesday, witnesses said, a day after two hospitals there were badly damaged.

At Al Kinana Hospital, blown-out walls and dust-covered medical cables and supplies were strewn about the hospital after two staff were wounded on Monday, witnesses said.

A baby sleeps outside a tent at a makeshift camp in Qatmah village, West of Azaz, Syria. At least seven children, including a baby, have died in freezing temperatures in recent days. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Ankara said talks with Moscow on Idlib were “not satisfactory” and Turkey would deploy more troops to the region.

Turkish and Russian officials held a second day of talks in Moscow with no apparent agreement on Idlib, where the latest push by Russian-backed Syrian government forces has killed several Turkish troops.

Russia said both sides restated their commitment to existing agreements aimed at reducing tension in Idlib. A statement did not mention Turkey’s demand for Syrian government forces to pull back.

Turkey says it cannot cope with a new refugee influx in addition to the 3.6 million Syrian refugees already stranded inside its borders.

Appearing on national television on Monday, Assad said the rapid military gains presaged the eventual defeat of the nine-year-old insurgency against him although it could still take time. The rebel factions include Turkish-backed rebels and jihadist militants.

Possible war crimes being committed

UN human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville, asked if Syria and Russia were deliberately targeting civilians and protected buildings, said: “The sheer quantity of attacks on hospitals, medical facilities and schools would suggest they cannot all be accidental.”

The attacks could constitute war crimes, Colville told a briefing in Geneva.

The UN human rights office said it had recorded 299 civilian deaths since Jan. 1, about 93 per cent caused by the Syrian government and its allies.

Internally displaced children warm themselves around a fire. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

The swift advance of government troops, backed by Russian air strikes, through northwest Syria has caused the biggest displacement of the war as people flee toward a shrinking pocket near the Turkish frontier where insurgents hold their last strongholds.

7 children dead

A UN spokesperson, David Swanson, said close to 900,000 people have fled conflict zones in Idlib province and western Aleppo since December, more than 80 per cent of them women and children.

Many have been unable to find shelter and are sleeping outside in freezing temperatures, burning plastic to stay warm and at risk of disease and death.

“Only half of all the health facilities in the northwest are still functioning now,” Swanson said.

Hurras Network, a Save the Children partner in Idlib, said seven children, including a seven-month-old baby, had died from freezing temperatures and bleak conditions in displaced persons camps.

About 525,000 children are among those trapped, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.

Syrian army claims full control in Aleppo countryside

The Syrian army said on Monday it had taken full control of dozens of towns in the Aleppo countryside.

The M5 highway linking Damascus to Aleppo, the focus of recent fighting, was re-opened to civilian traffic on Tuesday after government forces recaptured it last week, the Syrian Observatory war monitoring group reported.

The opposition said air strikes in southern areas of Idlib province had left dozens of towns and villages in ruins in what it called a “scorched earth policy.”

The Russian and Turkish delegations meeting in Moscow were trying to reconcile their differences over Idlib, which have raised questions over the durability of their co-operation.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops and convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia.

Moscow has accused Turkey of flouting their agreements and failing to rein in militants it said were attacking Syrian and Russian forces.

In one positive note, Turkish and Russian troops have restarted joint patrols near the border that had been halted since October, a Russian defence ministry official said.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said WHO was sending essential medicines and supplies across the border, including trauma kits for Idlib.

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Residents of northwestern Syria flee from government forces’ new offensive

Syrian government forces pressed ahead Monday with a new military assault on the country’s last rebel stronghold that began last week, an offensive that has set off a mass exodus of civilians fleeing to safer areas near the Turkish border.

Under the cover of airstrikes and heavy shelling, Syrian troops have been pushing into the northwestern province of Idlib toward a major rebel-held town, Maaret al-Numan. The town sits on a key highway linking the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest.

The immediate goal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces appeared to be reopening the highway, which has been closed by the rebels since 2012.

Idlib province is dominated by al-Qaeda-linked militants. It’s also home to three million civilians, and the United Nations has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border. The United Nations says over half of the civilians in Idlib have been internally displaced following continuing reports of airstrikes in the area.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is alarmed by the escalation of fighting and is calling for an immediate halt to hostilities, his spokesperson said late Monday.

The spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, said earlier that a UN-negotiated, six-hour humanitarian pause had enabled safe passage for more than 2,500 people to flee.

A displaced Syrian child holds a piece of bread while sitting out in the open in the countryside of Idlib province. (Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past three days, some 39 communities were reportedly been affected by shelling in northern Hama, southern Idlib and western Aleppo governorates, while 47 communities were reportedly hit by airstrikes, Dujarric said.

“The UN urges all parties to ensure the protection of civilians, and to allow sustained and unhindered access by all humanitarian parties to provide life-saving assistance to all in need,” the UN spokesperson said.

Residents of villages and towns in southern parts of Idlib province have been fleeing with their belongings in trucks, cars and on motorcycles.

The government’s ground offensive resumed last week after the collapse of a ceasefire, which had been in place since the end of August.

‘The destruction is massive’

Before this latest bout of violence, the UN reported that some 60,000 Idlib residents had already been displaced since the government’s bombing campaign began late last month.

The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper said Syrian troops were a few kilometres away from Maaret al-Numan, adding that the town “might surrender to the army without fighting.”

The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, said Maaret al-Numan and the nearby town of Sarqeb were almost empty after tens of thousands of civilians left to escape heavy aerial and ground bombardment.

“As you can see the destruction is massive. Residents were forced to flee this area,” said a member of the White Helmets in a video as he walked through Maaret al-Numan. “They had to choose between death or fleeing to the unknown further north.”

Airstrikes on a rebel-held town killed several people and wounded more than a dozen in the northwestern province of Idlib on Saturday. (Ghaith al-Sayed/The Associated Press)

Syrian troops have also nearly surrounded a Turkish observation post near the village of Surman in Idlib province, according to Al-Watan and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor.

Turkey is a strong backer of some rebel fighters, and has 12 observation posts in northwestern Syria as part of an agreement. The deal was brokered last year along with Russia, one of Assad’s main backers.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists in Syria, said government troops have captured approximately 35 villages and hamlets near Maaret al-Numan in the past few days.

Also Monday, a vehicle rigged with explosives blew up in a market in a northern Syrian town controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters, killing five people and wounding others, state media and opposition activists said.

State news agency SANA said the blast occurred in the village of Suluk near the Turkish border, putting the death toll at five people and reporting that several more were injured.

A similar death toll was also given by the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition and the Observatory, which also said 20 people were wounded.

Suluk is near the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad in Raqqa province. Turkish troops and Turkey-backed fighters captured Tal Abyad and Suluk from Kurdish-led fighters in October. Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria pushed back Syrian Kurdish fighters from some border areas.

Explosions in north Syria areas controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters killed scores of people in recent weeks.

Turkey blames Syrian Kurdish fighters for these attacks, a claim that the Kurds deny.

Separately, Russia’s military said insurgents used drones to attack its Hmeimeem air base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast a day earlier. The two drones were shot down and caused no damage or injuries, said Maj.-Gen. Yuri Borenkov of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of the Opposing Sides in Syria.

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Canada joins international condemnation of Russia, China over UN veto of Syria aid

Canada on Sunday joined countries condemning Russia and China after the two used a UN Security Council veto to block cross-border aid deliveries from Turkey and Iraq to millions of Syrian civilians.

In a Global Affairs statement, Canada said it is “deeply disappointed” by the veto.

“We are particularly concerned about the situation in Idlib, where the population faces increased violence, including airstrikes by the Syrian regime and Russia.” 

The veto came as Russian-backed Syrian forces have gained ground against the last opposition enclave in Syria’s northwest, with intense aerial strikes in southeastern Idlib.

Thousands of Syrian refugees from the region have fled into Turkey to escape the biggest offensive in more than three months.

“We call on all parties to allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to populations in need,” the Global Affairs statement said.

On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Russia and China had blood on their hands.

“The Russian Federation’s and China’s veto yesterday of a Security Council resolution that allows for humanitarian aid to reach millions of Syrians is shameful,” Pompeo said in a statement.

“To Russia and China, who have chosen to make a political statement by opposing this resolution, you have blood on your hands.”

Russia, backed by China, on Friday cast its 14th UN Security Council veto since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

Vote at UN Security Council

The resolution, drafted by Belgium, Kuwait and Germany, would have allowed cross-border humanitarian deliveries for a further 12 months from two points in Turkey and one in Iraq. But Syrian ally Russia only wanted to approve the two Turkish crossings for six months and had proposed its own draft text.

Russia and China vetoed the text, while the remaining 13 members of the Security Council voted in favour. A resolution needs a minimum nine votes to pass, and no vetoes by Russia, China, the United States, Britain or France.

Russia and China later introduced a resolution that would have extended deliveries for six months and kept only two crossing points in Turkey, but that failed to get the required nine Yes votes.

Reacting to Friday’s votes, Britain’s UN Ambassador Karen Pierce said Russia and China “gave no credible explanation for their veto or for the cynical attempt to score political points by tabling a second resolution that halved the number of crossings and halved the length of time.”

Pompeo said on Saturday: “The United States will remain committed to helping the voiceless, the hungry, the displaced, and the orphaned receive the humanitarian aid they require to survive no matter where they live.”

Since 2014, the United Nations and aid groups have crossed into Syria from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan at four places annually authorized by the Security Council. In a bid to compromise with Russia, the Jordan crossing was dropped by Belgium, Kuwait and Germany from their draft.

Still time to reach aid agreement

The current authorization for the four border crossings in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan ends on Jan. 10, so the Security Council could still attempt to reach an agreement, though some diplomats acknowledged this could now be difficult.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, shown Dec. 19, blasted Russia and China for vetoing a UN Security Council vote to continue aid to Syria. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

Russian and Syrian jets have stepped up strikes on villages and towns around Maarat al-Numan, from which thousands of people have fled to the relative safety of the Turkish border fearing an imminent assault.

The Syrian army said it had gained more than 20 villages and hilltops, and was coming close to one of 12 Turkish observation posts in the northwest, part of a deal with Moscow and Tehran in 2017 to avert large-scale fighting in Idlib.

On Saturday, Russian jets hit a busy marketplace in Saraqeb city, east of Idlib, leaving at least eight dead and scores injured, two residents and one rescuer said.

Residents in the area said many villages were now deserted in a campaign that has since it first started in April has displaced more than 500,000 people, according to the United Nations and international relief groups.

“Many villages and towns have turned into ghost towns. Russia’s ‘scorched earth’ bombing is helping the army gain ground,” said Mohamad Rasheed, an activist from the area.

Russia and the Syrian army, which is loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they’re fighting al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants.

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More Russian military police arrive in Syria as part of deal with Turkey

Russia sent about 300 more military police and more than 20 armoured vehicles to Syria on Friday under an accord between Ankara and Moscow that has halted Turkey’s military incursion into northeastern Syria.

The deal, sealed on Tuesday by presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, requires that Russian military police and Syrian border guards remove all Kurdish YPG militia from within 30 kilometres of the Turkish border by next Tuesday.

The military police, from the southern Russian region of Chechnya, will help with the withdrawal of Kurdish forces and their weapons to 30 kilometres of the Syrian-Turkish border, Interfax news agency reported the defence ministry as saying.

Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish militants who have waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984.

Turkey launched its offensive against the Kurds on Oct. 9 after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered U.S. forces out of northeast Syria. Ankara halted its assault under a U.S.-brokered ceasefire that called for a YPG withdrawal from the border area. The Putin-Erdogan deal built on and widened that agreement.

Russian forces have started patrols along the flashpoint frontier, filling the vacuum left by a U.S. troop withdrawal. (Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)

“The deployment of our forces and hardware as well as the forces and hardware of the Syrian border guards is currently taking place in the delineated zones,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

He repeated a warning that if Kurdish YPG forces did not withdraw from the border region they would be crushed by Turkey’s armed forces.

Under the terms of the deal, from next Tuesday Russian and Turkish forces will start to patrol a narrower, 10-kilometre strip of land on the Syrian side of the border where U.S. troops had been deployed for years alongside their former Kurdish allies.

The arrival of the Russian police marks a shift in the regional balance of power less than three weeks after Trump began pulling U.S. forces out of northeast Syria.

It has also highlighted a growing security relationship between Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and now the dominant power inside Syria, and NATO member Turkey.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accused Turkey on Thursday of launching a large land offensive targeting three villages in northeast Syria despite a truce, but Russia said the peace plan was going ahead smoothly.

Medical services needed

However, Doctors Without Borders reported that shelling in the village of Janoudia in northwestern Syria on Thursday resulted in a “mass casualty influx,” when 17 people were rushed to a hospital supported by the organization.

Three of the patients were under 14 years of age, the organization said in a statement, which also reported four deaths among the casualties.

“The need for medical services in northwestern Syria is extremely high,” the statement said. “Beyond the direct victims of the conflict — often from aerial bombing or shelling — there are huge needs for more than a million people who have fled areas of fighting over the past months and years.”

There were no reports of fresh clashes in northeast Syria on Friday. Turkey’s Defence Ministry has not commented directly on the SDF report but said five of its military personnel had been wounded in an attack by the YPG militia around the border town of Ras al-Ayn, near where the three villages are located.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in Brussels for a meeting of NATO ministers on Friday, said the United States would maintain a reduced military presence in Syria to prevent ISIS from seizing its oil fields and revenues.

Washington will keep “some mechanized forces” in Deir al-Zor, Syria’s oil region east of the Euphrates, Esper said.

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