Fragile truce holds over northwest Syria: monitor

BEIRUT: A fragile Russian-backed ceasefire was holding on Sunday in Syria‘s violence-plagued northwest, following months of heavy bombardment of the anti-regime bastion, a war monitor said.

“Relative calm prevails” over the Idlib region, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Regime and Russian warplanes have not been seen over Idlib since a unilateral ceasefire went into effect at 6 am (0300 GMT) on Saturday, he added.

But the Observatory head did report some “skirmishes” in Idlib, where government forces have been battling jihadists of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance and allied rebel groups.

HTS, Al-Qaeda‘s former Syria affiliate, controls almost all of Idlib as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

The area is one of the last holdouts of opposition to forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The region of some three million people has been hit hard by four months of bombardment by the regime and its ally Russia.

More than 950 civilians have been killed since the end of April, according to the Observatory, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.

The UN says more than 400,000 people have fled.

The truce is the latest Russian-led effort to avert what the United Nations has described as one of the worst humanitarian “nightmares” in Syria‘s eight-year conflict.

It is the second such agreement between Assad’s regime and jihadists since August 1. 

But on Saturday, an Assad advisor said that the ceasefire was “temporary.”

It “serves the grand strategy of liberating every inch of Syrian territory”, Buthaina Shaaban told Lebanon’s pro-Damascus Al-Mayadeen TV.

Just hours after the ceasefire went into effect, regime bombardment on the Idlib town of Kafranbel killed one civilian — the first casualty recorded by the Observatory since the start of the truce.

Two regime loyalists were reported killed when their car was targeted by rebel and jihadist fighters along Idlib’s southern border with Hama, according to the war monitor.

It said HTS fighters had also downed a Russian reconnaissance drone.

Also on Saturday, the US Defence Department said a US strike targeted Al-Qaeda in northern Idlib province.

The Observatory said the missile attack hit a meeting of Al-Qaeda leaders in a jihadist base near the city of Idlib, killing at least 40.

Russia accused the US of having “compromised” the ceasefire with the “indiscriminate” attack. 

The US said it targeted leaders of Al-Qaeda in Syria (AQ-S) “responsible for attacks threatening US citizens, our partners and innocent civilians.”

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and driven millions from their homes since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.