Syrian Offensive Targets Remaining Rebel Strongholds



Syrian rebels are fighting to maintain territory amid a new government offensive to capture parts of the country’s last opposition strongholds.

The military moves threaten to torpedo cease-fire agreements in place since May and derail peace efforts. Over the past two weeks, about 100,000 people have been displaced in rebel-held Idlib province and neighboring areas in the northwest, according to the United Nations and humanitarian groups.

Regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes and foreign Shiite militias have captured more than a dozen towns and villages since starting the offensive, according to antigovernment activists and opposition groups. On Friday, they captured two more villages in Idlib and advanced toward an air base that is under opposition control, according to antigovernment activist group Idlib24.

This week, U.N. officials sounded the alarm and called for an end to the violence, as did Turkey and France. Turkey summoned the ambassadors of Iran and Russia—the regime’s two main international allies—to convey “discomfort” over the regime’s violations of the cease-fire agreement reached last year, which reduced violence for a time and was meant to set the stage for peace talks.

The Turkish government urged an end to the offensive, according to Turkish state media.

“It’s not just a simple airstrike,” Turkish Foreign Minister

Mevlut Cavusoglu

said Wednesday. “The regime is moving in Idlib. The intent here is different.”

He said the military push undermines the political settlement process.

There has been no progress in peace talks while President

Bashar al-Assad’s

regime tries to consolidate control over more of the country. In addition to Idlib, the regime has launched airstrikes on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.

Rebels have lost a sizable amount of territory since Russia intervened militarily on behalf of the Syrian government more than two years ago. And, with waning political and military support, they face steep challenges maintaining any significant territory.

Airstrikes on Idlib and other opposition-held territory so far this year have killed at least 155 civilians, with schools, hospitals and rescue centers being targeted, according to the independent Syrian Network for Human Rights.

“The military actions of the regime and its supporters—including reports of the deliberate targeting of civilian buildings in violation of humanitarian law –risk a desperate and destabilizing humanitarian crisis,” said one European diplomat. “It is shameful to see Assad’s disregard for Syrian lives so blatantly displayed.”

France’s foreign ministry on Wednesday condemned the regime’s actions in both Idlib and the Eastern Ghouta, and called for the commitments of the cease-fire agreement to be upheld.

“This further deterioration of the situation in several regions in Syria underscores the urgent need for a political solution,” the ministry said.

The regime denounced France’s statement and said it is fighting terrorists and affiliated groups in Idlib, according to Syrian state media.

The U.N. has warned about the humanitarian impact of the regime’s intensified air offensive on rebel-held areas.

Mr. Assad has vowed to retake every inch of Syria but faces tough challenges in Idlib, which is almost entirely under opposition control and now shelters more than a million people who have been displaced from other parts of the country.

“It does seem like it would be more difficult for the regime to advance into Idlib’s denser, more mountainous interior where you have lots of rebels who are likely ready to defend their homes,” said

Sam Heller,

a research fellow at The Century Foundation think tank.

But the regime has been able to retake areas once thought to be solidly outside its grasp.

“We’ve all spent a lot of time telling ourselves the regime isn’t capable of taking one area or another,” Mr. Heller said. “And then we’re wrong.”

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at raja.abdulrahim@wsj.com



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