White Helmets retrieve a victim from Assad regime shelling of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Province, Syria, February 16, 2019


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Russia has provided cover for the Assad regime’s latest surge in deadly attacks on civilians in northwest Syria.

In an 11-day period up to February, regime shelling killed at least 44 civilians in Idlib and northern Hama Provinces. The vast majority were children and women.

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The assaults broke a demilitarized zone declared last September by Russia and Turkey, which has forces alongside rebels in the area. However, neither Moscow nor Ankara mentioned the attacks. Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that “terrorists” must be removed from Idlib.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova took up the diversionary line:

A threat to security and stability in Syria is coming from terrorists of the Nusra-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which controls almost the entire Idlib de-escalation zone. Field commanders are carrying out events on reshaping allied groups with the goals of increasing their offensive capabilities in the directions of Aleppo, Hama and mountainous Latakia.

The militants plan to expand the sphere of their influence and establish full control of Idlib.

The hardline Islamist bloc Hay’at Tahrir Sham controls parts of Idlib and northern Hama after pushing back rebel factions since 2017. HTS includes the faction Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra and linked with Al Qa’eda until July 2016.

Retaliating for the shelling on civilians, rebels reportedly fired some rockets at regime positions in northern Hama. However, there is no evidence to support Zakharova’s proclamation that HTS is pursuing an offensive on regime-held areas in Aleppo, Hama, and Latakia Provinces.

The spokeswoman did not mention any regime attacks. Instead, she proclaimed ceasefire violations by rebels, “Only over the past four days nearly 40 such cases have been recorded, when people died or were wounded.”