Syria Daily, Feb 16: Rebel Defenses Collapsing in Northern Aleppo

PHOTO: Man carries a child from a hospital in Azaz, damaged by Russian airstrike on Monday (Mujahed Abul Joud/AFP)


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Special: Is Turkey Ready to Move Without the US? (Not Quite.)


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UPDATE 1730 GMT: Russia’s Defense Ministry has tried to counter criticism of its airstrikes on hospitals and other civilian sites, following Monday’s attacks that killed an estimated 50 people during assaults on four medical facilities and a school.

“All strikes against terrorist targets are carried out only after multiple checks of intelligence and concerted efforts with the aim of reducing the risk for civilians,” spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.

“Once again I remind you that the Russian armed forces together with our partners have launched a multi-level intelligence system that works round the clock to obtain reliable information about the actions of terrorists in Syria and some of its neighbors,” he insisted.

Konashenkov claimed that the reports of Russian attacks were Turkish propaganda.

British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond has joined French and Turkish condemnation of Moscow’s operatoins:

“The reported airstrikes conducted on hospitals in northern Syria in recent days could amount to war crimes and must be investigated.

I am appalled that the Assad regime and its Russian supporters are still bombing innocent civilians despite the agreement last Thursday to a cessation of hostilities….Russia needs to explain itself, and show through its actions that it is committed to ending the conflict, rather than fueling it.

Medecins Sans Frontieres have raised the death toll of the Russian attack on its hospital at Ma’arat al-Numan in Idlib Province.

The White Helmets civil defense organization say three survivors have been found, 36 hours after the airstrike


UPDATE 1630 GMT: A Turkish official has told reporters that Ankara will not intervene with ground forces unless it is joined by the US:

Turkey is not going to have a unilateral ground operation. We are asking coalition partners that there should be a ground operation. We are discussing this with allies.

We want a ground operation. If there is a consensus, Turkey will take part. Without a ground operation, it is impossible to stop this war.

Local sources have confirmed to EA that Saudi Arabia also requires US acceptance before any military intervention, amid both regime-Russian-Hezbollah-Iranian and Kurdish offensives against rebels in northwest Syria.

See also Syria Special: Is Turkey Ready to Move Without the US? (Not Quite.)

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has told French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault of Ankara’s dissatisfaction with Paris’s criticism of Turkish shelling of the positions of Kurdish YPG militia.

On Sunday, the French Foreign Ministry called on Turkey to halt bombardment of Kurdish-controlled zones.


ORIGINAL ENTRY After months of attacks from three sides, rebel defenses are collapsing in northern Aleppo Province in northern Syria.

Rebels have held the area since 2012 but have faced a foreign-led regime offensive, enabled by intense Russian bombing, since October 2015. They have been at war with the Islamic State, including a frontline near the town of Mare’, since early 2014. This month, the Kurdish YPG militia — now also supported by Russian airstrikes — have advanced.

On Monday, rebels suffered a series of losses between Aleppo city and the Turkish border. After days of battles, they gave up the town of Tal Rifaat, held since 2012, to the Kurdish-led assault. The YPG and allies also captured Kafrnaya, following clashes between the Syrian Army and rebels, and Kafrnashih.

The Syrian Army, which has been fighting alongside Iranian forces, Hezbollah units, and Iraqi and Afghan militias, occupied Misqan and Ahras.

Rebels had gained territory in northwest Syria through much of 2015, while holding the line against the Islamic State. However, Russian aerial intervention checked the advance and began threatening rebel lines. Defense was still maintained until this month; however, the Kurdish entry into the battles this month appears to have broken the rebel resistance.

Kurdish leaders are hoping to join the Afrin canton, northwest of Aleppo city, with the Kobane and Cezire cantons in northeast Syria to establish a territorially-unified Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava).

The Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, repeated on Monday that Ankara will not accept a Kurdish takeover of the border town of Azaz. But rebels face the loss of Mare’, to the east of Tel Rifaat, to either the Kurds or the regime offensive — this in turn would raise the possibility, for the first time, of a Kurdish fight with the Islamic State in northwest Syria.

Earlier this month, the regime offensive split rebel territory to the the north of Aleppo city, cutting supplies between the Turkish border and the opposition in Aleppo, divided since July 2012.

111 Killed Amid Russian Bombing of Hospitals and School

The Kurdish and regime gains in Aleppo Province on Monday were accompanied by more Russian bombing, including attacks on two hospitals, killing at least 15 people, and a school.

The Russians also damaged two hospitals in rebel-held Idlib Province, leaving another seven people dead and eight missing and presumed killed.

Farhan Haq, a United Nations spokesman, said a total of 50 people died in the bombings. Two of the hospitals were supported by the UN children’s organization UNICEF, one by the international organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, and one by the French-based Syria Charity.

See Syria Videos and Pictures: Latest Russian Airstrikes on Hospitals and a School

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the airstrikes “constitute war crimes”, an assertion echoed by the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

The opposition Local Coordination Committees documented the deaths of 111 people on Monday, most of them from the Russian bombing.

Of the deaths, 52 were in Aleppo Province, especially in the attacks on Tal Rifaat and on the Islamic State-held al-Bab. Another 19 people died in Idlib Province, and 18 in Damascus and its suburbs.

According to Physicians for Human Rights, 697 health care workers have been killed in 336 attacks on medical sites during the conflict. Almost all of the assaults have been by the Syrian and Russian air forces.

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

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