JEDDAH: Syrian regime forces upped the pressure on two of the last opposition bastions on Monday, pounding the Eastern Ghouta enclave near Damascus and the northern province of Idlib, the Agence France Presse (AFP) reported.
Shelling and airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta, which regime forces have besieged for four years, killed at least 20 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The area, which had been designated as a “de-escalation zone” as part of an international deal last year to bring down violence levels, has witnessed major bloodshed in recent weeks.
Assad’s forces also managed overnight to pin back opposition fighters who had surrounded a regime base there.
Syrian and Russian aircraft also pounded targets in the northwestern region of Idlib. Raids on Sunday left “at least 21 dead, including eight children and 11 members of the same family” west of the town of Sinjar in the southeast of the province, the Observatory said.
“The Syrian regime has undermined the peace process by launching the Idlib offensive,” Hisham Marwah, a representative of Syria’s opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), told Arab News.
Russian-backed regime forces launched an operation on the edge of Idlib province in the last days of 2017 and have retaken villages every day since. An explosion on Sunday in the city of Idlib at a base for the group Ajnad Al-Qawqaz, made up of men from the Caucasus, left at least 43 dead, including 28 civilians, the Observatory said.
Marwah said the Idlib operation is not only a clear violation of the Astana deal struck in September 2017 with Russia, Iran and Turkey as guarantors but it is also part of the regime’s tactics to influence the forthcoming round of Geneva peace talks.
Another prominent Syrian opposition figure, Yahya Al-Aridi, echoed similar views. He said with the Idlib operation, the Astana deal has collapsed.
The opposition spokesperson called on Russia, as one of the guarantors of the Astana talks, to respond to such brutalities being carried out by the regime. This exposes Russian position as “an occupation force in Syria,” he told Arab News. “Iran is not excluded from these operations because it is part and parcel of Tehran’s cunning plans for Syria.”
By choosing the military option, the Syrian regime with support from Moscow and Tehran has pushed the peace process back to square one, Al-Aridi said. He said it would be of no use to talk about peace in such an atmosphere.
Marwah believes the Assad regime wants to gain control of as much land as possible to change the equation in any future talks. By using military options, he is trying to divert the increasing political pressure on his regime, he said.
The HNC official was also skeptical about reports of a recent attack on the Hmeimim base near the northwestern city of Latakia, which was blamed on the opposition groups. He, however, did not elaborate.
The HNC representative hoped that Ankara would not take any drastic measures in response to the ongoing Idlib offensive and would make efforts to de-escalate the situation using diplomatic channels.
Al-Aridi said that the civilian population of Idlib was facing a horrible predicament. “Of the total population of Idlib, 1.1 million are internally displaced persons from other parts of the country,” he said. He said they were already suffering in camps and being bombarded by the regime and Russian jets almost on a daily basis.
“A large number of civilians are fleeing to areas bordering Turkey and other safe places. The situation has been aggravated due to extremely cold weather,” Marwah said. He called on the international community to take serious measures for the protection of the Syrian people and their legitimate rights.