Children Die as Hospitals, Schools Bombed in Syria's 'Mini-World-War'
February 16, 2016
Loveday Morris and Erin Cunningham / The Washington Post & Liz Sly / The Washington Post & Bassem Mroue / AP
Nearly 50 civilians were killed in missile strikes on hospitals and two schools in northern Syria on Monday, the United Nations said, deepening the country's humanitarian crisis despite plans for a temporary cease-fire later this week. In total, at least five medical facilities and two schools in Idlib and neighboring Aleppo province were attacked on a single day. Russian official warns that the world had already descended into "a new Cold War."
Nearly 50 People Killed in Strikes
On Hospitals and Schools inside Syria
Loveday Morris and Erin Cunningham / The Washington Post
BAGHDAD (February 15, 2016) – Nearly 50 civilians were killed in missile strikes on hospitals and two schools in northern Syria on Monday, the United Nations said, deepening the country's humanitarian crisis despite plans for a temporary cease-fire later this week.
Doctors Without Borders said that at least seven people were killed early Monday when rockets hit a clinic that it supports in Idlib province. The group also said eight people were missing in what it called a "deliberate attack" on its facilities.
Doctors Without Borders did not say which group or military had fired the rockets; rights groups have documented numerous Russian and Syrian government strikes on hospitals and medical facilities across the country.
In total, at least five medical facilities and two schools in Idlib and neighboring Aleppo province were attacked Monday, a UN spokesman said.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday's carnage "casts doubt on Russia's willingness and/or ability" to stop the Syrian government from carrying out strikes on civilian targets.
In a statement Monday, Kirby urged "the cessation of hostilities that the Syrian people desperately need."
The fresh fighting comes after Syrian regime forces -- backed by Russian warplanes, Iranian troops and Iraqi militia fighters -- have made significant gains against rebel forces in northern Syria in recent weeks. The advances have raised the stakes of the nearly five-year-long conflict, which already has transformed into a proxy war.
Last week, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have supported the Syrian rebels, said that they planned to intensify strikes on the Islamic State in Syria and that they were also considering deploying ground troops to the country. Turkish and Saudi officials walked back those statements on Monday after US diplomats called for calm.
"It's not true," Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz said Monday of reports that Turkey had already sent in a limited number of troops.
Syria's state-run Syrian Arab News Agency published a letter from the country's foreign ministry to the U.N. Security Council over the weekend. It claimed that Turkish forces were among 100 gunmen that entered the country Saturday in an operation to support anti-government rebels.
"There is no thought of Turkish soldiers entering Syria," Yilmaz said, according to Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir also said late Sunday that the decision to deploy ground troops is up to the US-led coalition battling the Islamic State. "The timing is not up to us," Jubeir said from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
But Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria, has vowed to prevent Syrian-Kurdish militias from seizing more territory that they could use for a future state. And Saudi Arabia has already been worried about growing Iranian influence in the region, analysts say.
A Saudi diplomat said Sunday that Saudi Arabia was "very serious" about sending ground troops into Syria but that it will wait to see whether plans for a pause in hostilities agreed on by the United States and Russia transpires later this week.
The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the "disarray" on the Syrian battlefield spurred Saudi to action. He added that Riyadh wanted to counter Islamic State militants and Iranian influence in the country.
"Time is running out," he said. "We are waiting for the peace process to end. We believe it will fail, and when it does, the situation will be completely different."
He said Saudi officials discussed the possibility of sending troops with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during a recent three-day visit to Saudi Arabia. Yilmaz confirmed that a decision had been reached for Saudi Arabia to send four F-16 fighter jets to Turkey's Incirlik air base.
Loveday Morris is The Post's Baghdad bureau chief. She joined The Post in 2013 as a Beirut-based correspondent. She has previously covered the Middle East for The National, based in Abu Dhabi, and for The Independent, based in London and Beirut. Cunningham reported from Cairo.
A Mini-World War Rages
In the Fields of Aleppo
Liz Sly / The Washington Post
(February 14, 2016) -- Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev warned of the risks at a security conference in Munich on Saturday, saying that the world had already descended into "a new Cold War."
"There's a spiral of insecurity here that is not being managed," said Salman Shaikh, a political consultant whose Shaikh Group is engaged in mediation efforts in the Syrian war. "What we are seeing is a classic, really complicated balance-of-power struggle that could become a very dangerous situation."
For now, the focus of the fighting is the rural hinterland of Aleppo, a landscape of rolling farmland dotted with villages and towns that are steadily being pulverized by the relentless Russian bombardments. Residents said the intensity of the strikes has increased since the announcement of the cease-fire agreement, perhaps as Russia and its allies seek to maximize their gains ahead of its possible implementation.
Defeating the rebels here would enable the government to encircle and eventually crush the rebels in their stronghold in the eastern portion of the city of Aleppo, perhaps inflicting a decisive blow to the five-year-old rebellion against Assad's rule.
But more is at stake than the outcome of Syria's war. The Aleppo offensive is affirming Moscow's stature as a dominant regional power across the heart of the Middle East. The advances by Shiite Iraqi and Lebanese militias are extending the sway of Iran far beyond the traditional Shiite axis of influence into Sunni areas of northern Syria.
Although Syria's army is claiming the victories, rebels, military experts and videos by the fighters themselves say almost all of the advances are being made by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, the Iraqi Badr Brigade, Harakat al-Nujaba and other Iraqi Shiite militias that are sponsored by Iran.
Meanwhile, the Aleppo countryside is emptying. Tens of thousands of people have streamed north to the Turkish border to escape the airstrikes, where they are being blocked by a Turkish government that is hosting 2.5 million Syrian refugees.
They tell stories of entire villages being crushed and communities displaced. Mohammed Najjar, a resident of the town of Marae at the heart of the contested rural area, said that barely 5 percent of the town remained behind. His extended family had lost 15 houses just since the Aleppo offensive began two weeks ago, he said, speaking by telephone from the border area after he fled Marae last week.
Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said that driving people out of their homes has long been part of the Syrian government's strategy.
"They're depopulating areas of people whose loyalties are impossible to recover," he said. "It's a much cheaper and easier way to occupy territory than by trying to win hearts and minds. They're simply going to push people out so that there is no insurgency."
For Turkey, the biggest concern is that the vacuum along its borders will be filled by Kurds, whose dreams of independence have been brought closer by the chaos in Syria.
The People's Protection Units, or YPG, have already been taking advantage of US airstrikes in eastern Syria to expand a Kurdish enclave there. Now they are taking advantage of the Russian airstrikes around Aleppo to extend eastward from Afrin, another Kurdish enclave.
The stated Kurdish goal is to link the two enclaves into one extended Kurdish territory that would span more than half of Turkey's border with Syria.
The Kurdish expansion has caused friction between Washington and Ankara because Turkey regards the YPG as an affiliate of the Turkish Kurdish organization known as the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and Turkey.
But the United States does not regard the YPG as a terrorist group and has worked closely alongside it in the fight against the Islamic State.
Now, fighters with an alliance of Kurds and Arabs led by the YPG are closing in on the border town of Azaz, which controls the biggest Turkish gateway into Syria. Turkish artillery opened fire Saturday and again Sunday against two villages and an air base recently captured by the advancing Kurds -- in retaliation, a Turkish military statement said, for shells fired by the YPG that landed on a military base inside Turkey.
Vice President Biden telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Saturday to urge Turkey to halt its shelling. He emphasized "the imperative for de-escalation in the area," according to a White House statement Sunday. Separately, a State Department statement called on the Kurds "not to take advantage of a confused situation by seizing new territory."
Within hours of the appeals, the Kurds seized another northern Aleppo village, Ain Daqna, and Turkey resumed its bombardment.
There is no mood in Turkey for a war in Syria, but the risk of an unintended escalation is real, said Faysal Itani of the Washington-based Atlantic Council. Tensions between Russia and NATO member Turkey are already sky-high following Turkey's downing of a Russian jet last November, and any miscalculation could quickly trigger a Russian response.
"Turkey is under immense pressure," he said. "It has a quasi-Kurdish state emerging on its border, and the groups it championed are being destroyed."
Saudi Arabia also has talked of sending troops to Syria, prompting some speculation that the kingdom may be preparing to support a Turkish incursion. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Sunday, however, that Riyadh would send special forces only if the United States decides ground forces are needed for the fight against the Islamic State. "So the timing is not up to us," he said during a news conference in Riyadh.
Zakaria Zakaria contributed to this report.
Liz Sly is the Post's Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
Deadly Airstrikes Hit Hospitals,
School in Northern Syria
Bassem Mroue / Associated Press
BEIRUT (February 15, 2016) -- Airstrikes blamed on Russia hit at least two hospitals and a school in northern Syria on Monday, killing and wounding dozens of civilians and further dimming hopes for a temporary truce, as government troops backed by Russian warplanes pressed a major offensive north of Aleppo.
The raids came days after Russia and other world powers agreed to bring about a pause in fighting that would allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid and the revival of peace talks.
The projected truce agreed on Friday in Munich was to begin in a week, but there was no sign that would happen.
On Monday, Syrian state TV reported that pro-government forces have entered the northern town of Tel Rifaat, where they were fighting "fierce battles" against insurgents. Tel Rifaat is a major stronghold of militants fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
Capturing Tel Rifaat would bring government forces closer to their target of Azaz, near the Turkish border.
In Idlib province, an airstrike destroyed a makeshift clinic supported by Doctors Without Borders. The international charity, also known by its French acronym MSF, said the hospital in the town of Maaret al-Numan was hit four times in attacks that were minutes apart. It said seven people were killed and eight others were "missing, presumed dead."
"The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of around 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict," said MSF mission chief Massimiliano Rebaudengo.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Russian warplanes targeted the hospital, destroying it and killing nine people. The opposition group, which tracks both sides of the conflict through sources on the ground, said dozens were wounded in the attack.
"The entire building has collapsed on the ground," said opposition activist Yahya al-Sobeih, speaking by phone from Maaret al-Numan. He said five people were killed near the MSF clinic and "all members of the medical team inside are believed to be dead."
The Observatory and other opposition activists said another hospital in Maaret al-Numan was also hit Monday, most likely by a Syrian government airstrike.
In the neighboring Aleppo province, a missile struck a children's hospital in the town of Azaz, killing five people, including three children and a pregnant woman, according to the Observatory. A third air raid hit a school in a nearby village, killing seven and wounding others.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said close to 50 civilians were killed and many more wounded in missile attacks on at least five medical facilities and two schools in northern Syria.
Ban called the attacks "blatant violations of international laws" that "are further degrading an already devastated health care system and preventing access to education in Syria," according to UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.
Activists posted amateur video that showed civil defense workers pulling bodies from the rubble of the MSF-supported structure in Idlib, which collapsed into a heap of rubble and was tilting to one side.
Others showed a huge crater next to a building that purportedly housed the child and maternal hospital in Azaz. Incubators could be seen in a ward littered with broken glass and toppled medical equipment.
Russia says its airstrikes are targeting militants and denies hitting hospitals or civilians. But rights groups and activists have repeatedly accused Moscow of killing civilians.
Those accusations have increased recently as Russia intensified its airstrikes to provide cover to Syrian troops advancing in the north. Troops are trying to cut rebel supply lines to Turkey and surround rebel-held parts of Aleppo city, once Syria's largest.
Daragh McDowell, the head Russia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a British risk analysis firm, said Russian and Syrian tactics "strongly suggest a deliberate effort to further exacerbate the refugee crisis, as a means of destabilizing Europe and pressuring the West to agree to a settlement in Syria on Moscow and Damascus' terms."
Abdulrahman Al-Hassan, chief liaison officer at the Syrian Civil Defense, a group of first responders known as the "White Helmets," said the women's hospital in Azaz was hit by two surface-to-surface missiles. He said some 10 people were killed and many were wounded.
"We think it is Russia because the photos of the missiles have Russian language (and) because we haven't seen this kind (of missile) before the Russian intervention," he said.
Russia has been a key ally of Assad throughout the five-year uprising and civil war, and began launching airstrikes on Sept. 30.
In Turkey, the private Dogan news agency reported that more than 30 of those wounded in Russian airstrikes in Azaz, primarily children, were transferred to a hospital in southern Turkey. It showed footage of ambulances arriving and medics unloading children on stretchers.
"They hit the school, they hit the school," wailed a Syrian woman who was unloaded from an ambulance onto a wheelchair.
The US State Department condemned the airstrikes, saying they cast doubt on "Russia's willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people."
In Brussels, European Union officials had earlier called on Turkey to halt its military action in Syria after Turkish forces shelled positions held by a US-backed Kurdish militia over the weekend.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said that "only a few days ago, all of us including Turkey, sitting around the table, decided steps to de-escalate and have a cessation of hostilities."
Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said "we have the plan for a cessation of hostilities and I think everybody has to abide by that."
The UN's special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, arrived in Damascus on Monday for talks with Syrian officials.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Dominique Soguel in Istanbul, Turkey contributed to this report.
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