First Come the Drones, Then the Missiles Assad Is Hunting Civilians in Idlib

Syrian forces are targeting individual civilians in Idlib province with drones and fighter jets. Once the last stronghold of anti-government rebels, Idlib is now under the firm control of dictator Bashar Assad. Even Turkey, once the rebels' protector, is powerless to help.

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) search for victims at the site of a reported air strike in the Idlib province.
Omar HAJ KADOUR/ AFP

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) search for victims at the site of a reported air strike in the Idlib province.

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For Samir Berri, even getting bread could have meant death. An engineer by profession, Berri didn't want to leave his hometown of Khan Shaykhun in the Syrian province of Idlib, but dictator Bashar al-Assad's troops had turned it into a death zone. "Anyone who was on the streets in daytime was spotted by the jets or the drones and shot at. For anyone who was out at night and activated the spotlights, it was the same," Berri says on the phone, with the bitter laughter of an escapee. "The last store that sold bread was only open at night."

When a missile struck a few meters from his house in early August, he was out getting bread. He found his wife and child fearfully cowering under the stairs. The next morning, they fled to the north of the province, to a village that has thus far rarely been attacked.

Others were less fortunate: Najib Sarmani, a pistachio farmer, had already left the city. But a drone spotted him on his farm. Soon after, a jet shot at him, injuring his leg. His cousin wanted to bring him to safety, but when the jet returned, Sarmani couldn't walk and was killed in a hail of gunfire.

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Fatin Kerawan, a teacher, had also already fled Khan Shaykhun, but returned briefly this past week to get some clothes. After her brother-in-law took a wrong turn driving in the dark, he turned on the headlights. When they stopped and got out of the car, a missile struck them. At least that's what emergency personnel say happened.

Targeted Strikes

Since last spring, Syrian army tanks, along with jets from the Syrian and Russian air forces, have been attacking the last remaining rebel stronghold, Idlib, in the northwest of the country. The last emergency clinic in Khan Shaykhun, the bakeries, the pumping station for the water supply, were all reduced to rubble. Almost all the estimated 80,000 inhabitants and 30,000 internally displaced people left the city.

But since early August, the attackers have been deliberately hunting people. Drones have been a constant fixture in the skies above the city, transmitting the coordinates of individual pedestrians and motorcyclists. It often takes less than a minute for the people to be targeted by jets. Assad also sent additional troops into the region, taken from his most important divisions: the "Tiger Forces" of the Republican Guard and the 4th Division. Russia has delivered new equipment, including night-vision technology. For the first time in months, fighters of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian units are reportedly present at the front, east of Khan Shaykhun. It is unclear from listening to their radio traffic to what extent they are actually participating in the fighting.

After Assad's air force attacked Khan Shaykhun in 2017 with the nerve gas sarin, killing over 90 people, United States President Donald Trump ordered the bombing of a military airport. When the regime shot the city to pieces without using chemical weapons, killing 130 civilians, the rest of the world watched impassively. Last Tuesday, the last rebels retreated from Khan Shaykhun. On Wednesday afternoon, the victorious troops marched in. By evening, they had encircled the entire region, which includes several municipalities, emptied of almost all inhabitants and most rebels -- and a Turkish military base manned by 200 soldiers.

Who Needs Enemies?

The conquest of Khan Shaykhun is a triumph for Assad, but, above all else, it marks the end of the power games between the two autocrats deciding Idlib's fate: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who supports Assad, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the last international ally of the Islamist rebels.

Erdogan has opposed Assad since the beginning of the civil war, but the freedom of the Syrians quickly ceased to be his main priority. Starting in mid-2016, Turkish troops marched into the northern province of Aleppo, ostensibly to fight against the Islamic State. But after IS' collapse, the Turkish troops stayed, bringing in administrative offices, banks and even Turkish post offices. Together, they quietly worked on a de facto annexation of the territory.

A Syrian man carries the body of a child at the site of a reported air strike by the Syrian air force in the province of Idlib.
Abdullah Hammam/ AFP

A Syrian man carries the body of a child at the site of a reported air strike by the Syrian air force in the province of Idlib.

Erdogan 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. It would be a horror scenario for the Turkish government, which has already come under pressure from voters for hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Ankara recently began deporting refugees to Idlib.

Putin, on the other hand, sees Idlib as a way of pressuring Turkey to further loosen its ties to NATO.

Last September, Moscow and Ankara agreed on a cease-fire for Idlib. At the time, Russia declined to take part in a joint offensive on Idlib with Assad. In exchange, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the rebel group once known as Al-Nusra Front and had once been closely associated with al-Qaida, was to be disarmed and destroyed.

The opposite happened: Instead, HTS became the most powerful group in Idlib. The Turkish army and intelligence service couldn't stem the extremists -- that, or they didn't want to. In any case, several opportunities to destroy them came and went, even as several rebel groups asked, with increasing desperation, for help in fighting HTS. It seems like Erdogan wanted the battle-hardened jihadists as a backcountry reserve for a fight that is more important to him than the one against Assad anyway: the war against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatists who have brought northeastern Syria under their control with help from the U.S.

Tug of War

Erdogan wanted to play Putin's game. But in that game, only military strength matters, and Erdogan simply couldn't keep up. To win Putin's favor, he purchased the Russian S-400 air defense system. The first units were delivered in July -- against Washington's vehement opposition. But a complete break with NATO hasn't come to pass -- and because Moscow didn't get what it wanted, it is now gradually taking away the things that Ankara desires.

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All the 12 heavily fortified Turkish military bases in and around Idlib, described innocently as "observation posts," didn't help: As soon as Russia and the Assad regime began their attack, Turkish troops were unable to stop them. Even the three military convoys Ankara sent south of Idlib last Monday as a show of strength didn't make it far. The first, at the least, was stopped by Assad's jets. The aircraft didn't bomb the vehicles directly, but their strikes came close enough to bring them to a halt.

For Assad, everything is currently going according to plan. For three years, his regime had rebels and opposition supporters bussed to Idlib after they were defeated in battle, partly to maintain humanitarian appearances. But Idlib is their last stop. As Suheil al-Hassan, the commander of Assad's Tiger Forces announced 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!"

Nowhere to Go

In the eyes of the regime, anyone who doesn't submit to Assad is a terrorist. The same is true for those who live in the wrong region. For the people who have escaped Khan Shaykhun, there is nowhere left to flee. Turkish and Russian emissaries are negotiating an end to the ground offensive, and the HTS jihadists have now supposedly also retreated from the area south of Idlib. But the air attacks go on. On Wednesday alone, they struck two hospitals.

Mahmoud Darwish, the chronicler of Khan Shaykhun's city council, who painstakingly kept track of every death, every wounded person, every air attack and every barrel bomb, fled in late July with his wife and child to Ariha, in the center of the province. Last Friday, jets were once again bombing residential neighborhoods there as well.

Badria Barakat, 81, lives in Ariha with her granddaughter Ghazal. Her sons are fighting in Assad's army. Her daughters have fled to Germany and Aleppo. Recently, Barakat was sitting in front of her house when a missile landed nearby. She threw herself in front of her granddaughter to protect her and was hit by shrapnel in her stomach, shoulder and head. She survived after an emergency operation, with a piece of shrapnel in her head that nobody can remove. She is desperate and alone. "Where should I go?" she wonders.

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