Russia, al-Assad step up Syria bombing amid world focus on Israel-Gaza war

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Idlib, Syria — Syrian government forces and Russia have stepped up the bombardment of northwest Syria, killing dozens of people, including children, and wounding hundreds of others, opposition leaders and emergency volunteers have said, at a time when Israel’s war on Gaza is holding the world’s attention.

Russian and Syrian attacks in October focused on cities and villages in the countryside of Idlib and Aleppo. This escalation resulted in the total deaths of 66 civilians, including 23 children and 13 women, and left more than 270 people injured, with 79 children and 47 women among the casualties, according to a Syrian volunteer emergency rescue group.

While the pace of aerial and artillery bombardment in northwest Syria has decreased since the beginning of November, Syrian regime forces have shifted their attention to targeting civilian vehicles using guided missiles.

Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, said that from the beginning of the current year until November 8, their teams responded to 17 guided-missile attacks by regime forces. These attacks resulted in the deaths of four civilians, including a White Helmets volunteer, and injured 15 civilians, including two children.

Idlib is the last province controlled by opposition fighters in Syria, governed by a ceasefire agreement between Turkey and Russia since March 5, 2020. However, this agreement is occasionally violated by Syrian government forces.

“The military escalation by al-Assad regime, the Russians, and the Iranians against civilians in northern Syria has not stopped for a single day, but it intensifies and weakens from time to time based on international, regional, and local circumstances,” said Mustafa al-Bakour, a leader in Syrian opposition factions in northwest Syria, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Bakour told Al Jazeera that Russia and the Syrian regime exploited the world’s preoccupation with the war in Gaza to escalate in northwest Syria, aiming to exert pressure on Turkey and Syrian opposition factions regarding issues such as opening the international road between Syria and Turkey. The M4 and M5 are among the most crucial arteries for international trade in Syria, serving as a transportation link connecting the country to Northern Europe, South Asia and the Arabian Gulf.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the recent escalation has displaced over 120,000 civilians from their cities and villages to shelters and camps near the Syrian-Turkish border.

“Based on the facts on the ground, I do not believe the conditions are suitable now or even in the near future for any military action by either side,” said al-Bakour. “However, I am not ruling out the continuation of shelling operations by al-Assad and Russian forces on civilians in northern liberated Syria.”

On November 6, the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Admiral Vadim Kulit, the deputy director of the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria, saying that Russian air forces carried out airstrikes on a drone warehouse in Idlib province, which was purportedly used for attacks on Syrian government-controlled sites. Al-Bakour denied to Al Jazeera the Russian claims of Syrian opposition factions possessing drones.

Military bases and strategic gains

Since its military intervention in Syria in 2015, Russia has sought to establish numerous military bases on its ally’s territory, including the Hmeimim Air Base in the Latakia countryside, as well as a naval base in Tartus, the only Russian deployment point in the Mediterranean.

“Russian intervention in Syria was not out of love for Bashar al-Assad’s regime but to gain strategic assets that were previously beyond Russia’s reach, such as military presence in the Middle East and, especially, obtaining a naval base in the Mediterranean to monitor NATO forces’ movements,” said Turki Mustafa, an Idlib-based political analyst and historian.

Mustafa told Al Jazeera that Russia consistently claims, when bombing cities and villages in northwest Syria, to be fighting “terrorism”, but in reality, it aims to draw attention to itself as a key regional and international player, even at the expense of civilians. “I rule out Russia launching a ground military campaign in northwest Syria, given Moscow’s need for Ankara and its strategic role in several files, most notably the Ukrainian file,” said Mustafa.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented the killing of about 7,000 civilians, including 2,046 children and 978 women, by Russian forces alone since the start of its military intervention in Syria to support al-Assad regime eight years ago.

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