Russia on Friday announced a ceasefire by the Syrian government forces in the northwestern province of Idlib from Saturday morning.
An agreement was reached on “a unilateral ceasefire by Syrian government forces in the Idlib de-escalation zone, from 6am on August 31”, the Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria said in a statement.
The announcement came after Russian-backed Syrian forces advanced on the rebel-held bastion, one of the last holdouts of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad‘s government.
The ceasefire aimed “to stabilise the situation” in Idlib, the statement said, urging anti-government fighters to “abandon armed provocations and join the peace process”.
Russia and its Syrian ally have stepped up aerial raids on northwestern Syria as they sent reinforcements from elite army units and Iran-backed armed groups to bolster a major offensive against the last major rebel stronghold, opposition sources, army defectors and residents said on Friday.
The Russian-led alliance took the town of Khwain, Zarzoor and Tamanah farms in southern Idlib, pushing closer into densely populated parts of Idlib province where millions of people who fled fighting elsewhere in Syria have taken refuge.
They were the first gains since the alliance seized the main rebel pocket in Hama province last week.
Jets flying at high altitudes believed to be Russian, according to activists who track warplanes, dropped bombs on the outskirts of the heavily-populated Idlib city, the capital of the province.
Opposition sources say hundreds of troops from the country’s elite Republican Guards – led by the president’s brother Maher al-Assad that defends the capital, Damascus – alongside fighters from Lebanon‘s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group were deployed on the front lines of southern Idlib province.
“There are daily reinforcements coming from the Iranian militias, elite Republican Guards units and Fourth Armed Division,” Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Izza rebel group told Reuters news agency.
Moscow’s dispatch of ground forces had made a breakthrough after months of costly battles that yielded little or nothing for al-Assad’s side and risked humiliating Moscow, according to Western intelligence sources.
Rebel resistance has been eroded by a relentless aerial campaign against civilian areas since late April. The campaign has damaged or flattened dozens of hospitals, schools and civil defence centres and paralysed life in rebel-held areas.
Moscow and Damascus deny they have targeted civilians and say they are responding to “militant attacks” by the al-Nusra Front, an armed alliance now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, that is the dominant force in Idlib.
The new lineup of Russian-backed forces facing a coalition of fringe elements and mainstream Turkey-backed rebels has been credited with the rapid progress achieved in the last few weeks, an army defector and two senior opposition sources conceded.
“The Russians have now moved to depending on the Iranians and elite army formations in this campaign,” Bakour added, saying this was a shift away from reliance on the so-called Tiger Forces who previously provided most of the Syrian army’s ground troops.
Since capturing the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun nearly 10 days ago, Russian and Syrian jets have been escalating raids on the city of Maraat al-Numan that lies further north.
At least 12 civilians, including five children, were killed during raids overnight on the now ghost city that has seen most of its over 140,000 residents flee in the last few weeks.
The gains of the last 24 hours bring the Russian-led alliance closer to capturing the town of Tamaneh, one of the dozens of rural villages and towns that have been pummeled in heavy air raids.
More than half a million civilians have now been uprooted in the course of the offensive that the United Nations says has killed hundreds and resulted in large-scale destruction of civilian areas.
SOURCE: Reuters news agency