Syrian opposition retakes territory captured in regime offensive

JEDDAH: A counterattack by Syrian opposition groups in northwest Idlib province has recaptured several villages, taken prisoners and liberated more than two-thirds of the territory captured by regime forces.

The push by factions including the radical Levant Liberation Committee slowed an offensive launched two weeks ago by Assad regime troops, Iranian militias and Russian jets toward the Abu Zuhour air base, which has been held by the opposition since 2015.

The regime offensive has displaced about 200,000 people, opposition spokesman Yahya Al-Aridi told Arab News on Saturday. “They are now refugees,” he said. “This is a disaster for them.”

Nevertheless, the morale of the anti-Assad forces was high, Al-Aridi said. He said the pretext for the regime offensive was “a few people classified as Al-Nusra, and the brutality perpetrated is horrible. The freedom fighters are just doing a good job and are liberating many of the villages captured by the regime.”

Al-Aridi described a recent meeting between an opposition delegation and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “very fruitful,” and said there was an understanding of the rebel view that the conflict should be resolved through UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva.

Russia is sponsoring what it calls a Syrian national dialogue conference at the end of January in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. “There is no clear picture about the Sochi meeting and the viewpoints on it are quite similar,” Al-Aridi said. “Guterres is not encouraged toward the Sochi meeting.”

In Damascus, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, said he was “deeply worried” about civilians caught up in the violence in Idlib. He said he was also particularly concerned about the fate of the people of eastern Ghouta, the opposition-held rural suburb of Damascus where more than 400,000 have been trapped under regime siege since 2013.

Attacks on the area by Syrian and Russian forces in late October and early November 2017 killed eight children and damaged or destroyed four schools, according to a new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“Syrian and Russian forces appear to view the lives of children in eastern Ghouta as utterly disposable,” said Bill Van Esveld, the group’s senior children’s rights researcher.

Meanwhile, the Russian military said it had eliminated a group of opposition fighters who killed two Russian servicemen and destroyed seven aircraft in a drone attack on Russia’s Hmeymin air base in Syria on New Year’s eve. The military tracked down the fighters with drones and other intelligence assets and struck them with artillery while they were boarding a minibus in Idlib. Russia also destroyed the drone assembly facility in Idlib, the Defense Ministry said.

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