Syrian troops reach outskirts of key rebel-held air base.

Members of the Syrian civil defense (known as the White helmets)
evacuate wounded people in the rebel-held besieged town of Douma
following air strikes on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. Regime
forces upped the pressure on two of the last rebel bastions in Syria,
pounding the Eastern Ghouta enclave and the northern province of Idlib.
(AFP) BEIRUT/PARIS: Syrian pro-government forces reached the outskirts
of a sprawling rebel-held air base on Wednesday, the target of a
wide-ranging offensive in the northwestern Idlib province. Recapturing
the Abu Zuhour air base, which the rebels took in 2015, has been one of
the main goals of the government offensive launched in late October. The
operations also aim to secure the road linking the capital, Damascus,
with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest. The
government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops are
fighting Al-Qaeda-linked militants and other insurgents in different
areas near Abu Zuhour. It said troops approaching from the south are now
2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away from the base. The government offensive
has displaced tens of thousands of people, who have fled toward areas
close to the Turkish border. The push into Idlib province, which is
mostly held by rebels, is the deepest by the government since it lost
much of the area three years ago. The province is covered by a
de-escalation agreement reached last year between Russia and Iran, who
back President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which supports the opposition.
The UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein expressed
“grave concern” over the situation in Idlib, which is home to
more than 2.6 million Syrians, including more than 1.1 million who fled
fighting elsewhere in the country. Zeid also condemned the upsurge in
civilian casualties in the eastern suburbs of Damascus known as eastern
Ghouta, stressing that all parties are obliged under international law
to distinguish between lawful military targets and civilians. On
Wednesday, more than two dozen people were killed in the government
bombardment of eastern Ghouta and rebel shelling of the capital itself.
“The suffering of the people of Syria knows no end,” Zeid said
in a statement about eastern Ghouta, where nearly 400,000 people are
living under government siege. “In Idlib, ground attacks and
airstrikes have escalated as a rapidly-moving government offensive gains
momentum, jeopardizing the safety of hundreds of thousands of
civilians,” said Zeid. He said that at least 85 civilians,
including 21 women and 30 children, have been killed and at least 183
injured in eastern Ghouta since Dec. 31. The push toward Abu Zuhour came
as the opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights reported several explosions in the coastal province of Latakia,
an Assad stronghold. The Observatory said the blasts were the result of
explosions in an arms depot east of Latakia. State media did not report
any blasts in the area. Meanwhile, France said on Wednesday it was
“extremely concerned” by the Syrian government offensive and
demanded that commitments made at an international deal in Astana to
reduce hostilities be respected. “France condemns the intense
bombardments carried out by the Assad regime’s air force and its
allies in the Idlib region in recent days, particularly those targeting
the civilian population and several hospitals,” France’s
foreign ministry said in a statement. It added that deliberately
targeting health centers constituted a violation of international law.
The Syrian army, supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian air
power, began an offensive in late October in Hama province. By the end
of last week, they had advanced into Idlib, close to an insurgent-held
military airport. The fighting and air strikes have forced more than
60,000 people to leave their homes since Nov. 1, according to the UN
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The area is
part of a de-escalation zone agreement in the Kazakh capital Astana last
year between Turkey, which supports rebel groups, and Assad allies Iran
and Russia. “We ask that the commitments made in Astana be
respected, so that the violence stops as soon as possible. Safe,
comprehensive and unimpeded humanitarian access to all people in need
must be ensured immediately,” the ministry added. It also said it
was “outraged” by the ongoing siege in Eastern Ghouta. In
Moscow, the Russian military urged its Turkish counterparts to tighten
monitoring of the opposition in northern Syria in the wake of a drone
attack on Russian military bases in the country. Russia’s Defense
Ministry said its forces repelled a series of drone attacks Saturday,
adding that out of the 13 drones involved, seven were shot down and six
were forced to land without inflicting any damage. The official military
daily Krasnaya Zvezda said the ministry sent letters to the Turkish
military asking it to deploy observers to Idlib to ensure that rebels
don’t launch more attacks. Russia entered the civil war in 2015 to
bolster government forces, helping them to secure a series of victories
against Daesh as well as mainstream rebels.

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