Syrian regime is hunting civilians in Idlib province - Spiegel

The Syrian government’s Russia-backed offensive has transformed parts of Idlib, the country’s last rebel-held province, into a death zone for locals, German outlet Spiegel reported on Tuesday. 

“Anyone who was on the streets in daytime was spotted by the jets or the drones and shot at,” said Samir Berri, a resident of Khan Sheikhoun, which Syrian forces took control of last week. “For anyone who was out at night and activated the spotlights, it was the same.”

Najib Sarmani, a pistachio farmer, was spotted by a drone on his farm. Then a jet shot at him, injuring his leg. Soon the jet returned and, with Sarmani unable to walk, killed him in a hail of gunfire, said Spiegel. 

Fatin Kerawan, a teacher, returned to Khan Sheikhoun last week to get some clothes, but her brother-in-law got lost driving in the dark and turned on the headlights. When they stopped and got out of the car, a missile struck them, according to emergency personnel.

Syrian army tanks, along with jets from the Syrian and Russian air forces, have been attacking Idlib since late April, and Khan Sheikhoun has been nearly emptied of habitants and reduced to rubble, according to Spiegel. 

“Since early August, the attackers have been deliberately hunting people,” said Spiegel, adding that drones transmit coordinates so fast that it can take less than a minute for people to be targeted by gunfire. 

Suheil al-Hassan, the commander of Syrian President Bashar Assad's Tiger Forces said on the army's Telegram channel: “I order the children to be killed before the adults on the battlefield, the women before the men! We will no longer allow any terrorist to live among us!”

Last September, Ankara and Moscow agreed to establish de-escalation zones in Idlib, with Turkey agreeing to shoulder the responsibility of keeping rebel groups there under control. Russia and Syria have criticised Turkey for failing to fulfil its part of the deal, with al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) gaining control of much of the province.

With more than half a million people displaced since it began, the Russian and Syrian offensive threatens to create more Syrian refugees, even as Ankara hopes to return many of the 3.6 million already in Turkey. 

“Erdoğan now wants to defend Idlib for another reason: If Assad's troops march through the province, it would set off a new surge of refugees toward Turkey,” said Spiegel. “It would be a horror scenario for the Turkish government.”

This is why Putin sees Idlib as a way of pressuring Turkey to further loosen its ties to NATO, according to Spiegel. 

Turkey’s 12 military bases in and around Idlib have done little to halt the offensive, and a military convoy Ankara sent south into Idlib last week was attacked by Syrian missiles.

Speaking on Tuesday in Moscow, Erdoğan said that last year’s deal with Russia, named after the city in which it was made, could only be put into effect if the Syrian government halted its offensive. 

“Only after the regime puts an end to its attacks can we fulfil our responsibilities stemming from the Sochi memorandum,” the president said, adding that he hoped to see progress when Syrian, Iranian, and Turkish leaders meet next month.  

“For Assad, everything is currently going according to plan,” said Spiegel. “For the people who have escaped Khan Sheikhoun, there is nowhere left to flee. Turkish and Russian emissaries are negotiating an end to the ground offensive.”