Syrian regime steps up attacks on rebels after US missile strike

‘US strikes turned out to be useless, Assad is still intent on attacking,’ claims rebel fighter

Smoke rises after an air strike on rebel-held Daraa al-Balad last Friday. Activists say regime forces backed by Russian warplanes have increased attacks. Photograph: Alaa Al-Faqir/Reuters

Smoke rises after an air strike on rebel-held Daraa al-Balad last Friday. Activists say regime forces backed by Russian warplanes have increased attacks. Photograph: Alaa Al-Faqir/Reuters

 

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces are intensifying attacks on rebel areas, days after the US fired a salvo of missiles at one of the regime’s main airbases, according to opposition activists.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group with a network of activists across the country, said about 250 air strikes, including barrel bombs, and hundreds of artillery and rocket strikes hit rebel areas on Monday. The focus of the attacks was on Idlib in northern Syria, the central Hama province and southern Deraa, which are the remaining strongholds of rebels fighting to oust Assad.

Several air strikes have hit Khan Sheikhoun, the town that was the scene of a suspected gas attack last week that killed more than 80 people and prompted the US missile attack on Shayrat air base.

US defence secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday that the 59 Tomahawk missile strikes had damaged or destroyed 20 per cent of Syria’s operational aircraft, as well as fuel and ammunition sites.

“The Syrian government has lost the ability to refuel or rearm aircraft at Shayrat airfield and at this point use of the runway is of idle military interest,” he said in a statement. “The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons.”

Regime forces

But activists say regime forces backed by Russian warplanes have stepped up attacks. A day after the US strikes on Shayrat, which Washington claims was the launch place for the gas attack, local media showed footage of warplanes taking off from the base.

“These [US]strikes turned out to be useless, Assad is still intent on attacking . . . in some places the strikes are even worse,” said one rebel fighter, who asked not to be named. “Our only hope is that they [the Americans] will do it again.”

During the weekend, activists in northern Syria uploaded video footage that showed blasts with white flashes that they said were suspected of being thermite bombs, adding that the effect was similar to napalm. Incendiary explosives, like chemical weapons, are mostly banned under international weapons conventions.

The gas attack and the Trump administration’s abrupt response has escalated tensions between Washington and Moscow, which backs the Assad regime. Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, is due to make his first official visit to Russia on Wednesday.

Syrian government forces gained the upper hand in the six-year civil war after Russia intervened militarily on its behalf in late 2015, mostly providing air support. On the ground, long-time Assad supporter Iran stepped up its troop presence – and that of foreign Shia militias it supports.

Minimal damage

Both Moscow and Tehran have condemned the US missile strikes. Pictures released by Russian media seemed to show minimal damage, and Moscow said only 23 of the 59 missiles had hit the base, destroying six planes.

Washington had given advance notice of its attack to Russia, which had a military presence at Shayrat and in turn warned Syrian forces to start moving out equipment, Syrian officials say.

But a regional diplomat close to Moscow privately said the attacks damaged far more equipment than the Syrian government and Russia were admitting.

Shayrat, located centrally in Syria, was a “nerve centre” for attacks, according to a former military officer based there, who has since defected. “It will make it more difficult for them to do their attacks, even if it doesn’t show,” he argued. “The message from the US was strong.”

However, rebels worry that Russia will react to the US military action by increasing its support to Damascus and there have been reports that Moscow will enhance Syria’s air defence capability. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017