With IS down but not out, Syria’s war escalates on multiple fronts

Beirut: Half a dozen newborns, blinking and arching their backs, were carried from a burning hospital hit by airstrikes. A bombed apartment house collapsed, burying families. Medics doused patients with water after a suspected chlorine attack, one of five in Syria since the start of the year.

That was just a fraction of the violence this week in northern Syria, according to residents and rescue workers, as the Syrian government and its Russian ally stepped up their air war on two of the country's last major rebel-held areas.

"All types of weapons have been used on us for seven years, and the whole world is watching," said Moaz al-Shami, an anti-government activist in the north Syrian town of Saraqeb where a medical clinic was hit as its staff was treating people wounded in a market bombing while buying potatoes. "In Saraqeb, we die twice."

Since the rout of the Islamic State last year, and steady government advances against other insurgent groups, a misperception has grown abroad that the Syrian war is winding down. Instead, the carnage is reaching a new peak.

Since December, 300,000 people have fled new fighting. In one 48-hour period this week, government strikes killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians, according to rescue and medical workers, in the besieged, rebel-held suburbs just east of the capital, Damascus. The explosions could be heard and the smoke seen from the seat of power just a few miles away.

UN officials on Tuesday declared the situation "extreme" and called for an immediate nationwide cease-fire. The International Committee of the Red Cross decried the reported bombing of medical facilities in Hama and Idlib provinces, where the majority of hospitals were already out of commission.


Just as two major government assaults on rebel strongholds were intensifying, Turkey launched a surprise invasion of a Kurdish border area, and suddenly there were three regions under fire, each creating a new emergency for civilians.

"There are multiple fronts where people are under extreme danger without a view to a solution," Assistant Secretary-General Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations' regional aid coordinator for the Syria crisis, said on Tuesday. "We haven't seen this."

The fact is that the Syrian war, for years, has not been just one war but a tangle of separate but intersecting conflicts with a rotating cast of combatants. Much of the world cheered the collapse of the Islamic State's medieval-inspired caliphate last year. But that victory cleared the way for the war's underlying conflicts to resurface with a vengeance.

In western Syria, government forces have turned their focus to a battle that existed before the Islamic State's rise: the fight against an array of rebel groups aiming to unseat President Bashar Assad. Backed by Russia and Iran, the Syrian military is stepping up efforts to crush the largest remaining rebel-held pockets, taken over years ago by factions ranging from nationalist army defectors to the Islamic groups that now dominate them.

Moreover, the celebrations over the Islamic State's defeat may have been premature. Many of its fighters have simply gone underground, joining sleeper cells and returning to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics in government-held areas.

Haid Haid, a Syria researcher at Chatham House, a Britain-based research group, said there are signs that other insurgent groups also are using guerrilla strategies, setting off explosions in the government-controlled cities of Damascus and Aleppo. More will join those ranks as they lose territory, he said.

"We are talking about thousands of people, not hundreds," he said.

The West has largely stepped back from the fight over Assad, tacitly accepting his continued rule and leaving Russia, Iran and Turkey as the most active foreign powers in the war. But the United States remains entrenched in a large swath of northeastern Syria that US-backed, Kurdish-led militias seized from the Islamic State.

For now, two very different rebel-held landscapes are bearing the brunt of attacks by government forces, supported by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, including the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

One is the mostly rural province of Idlib, on Syria's north-western border, where the newborns were evacuated from a burning hospital last week.

Residents are digging trenches and weighing whether to flee.

Mohammad Najdat Kaddour, 32, said he was near despair after seven years protesting the government, dodging airstrikes, and trying to build independent local organisations in defiance of jihadi groups that have dominated the province.

"Everything will be gone soon," he said recently as government forces drew within a few kilometres  of his hometown, Binnish. He blamed disunited rebel factions and their mistake of initially welcoming jihadis who later turned on them.

"If Binnish and Saraqeb fall, goodbye Idlib," he said. "But we deserve that."

The history of Idlib in many ways is the history of the war. The province was one of the early centres of protest against decades of Assad family rule, and one of the first places where, after the government cracked down on the protests, people began to take up arms.

Some rebel groups there won the support of the United States and its allies. But foreign jihadis swarmed in, proving better funded and organised as they recruited Syrians. Idlib became one of the first Islamic State footholds. Local fighters ejected the group only to be later dominated by a Qaida-linked faction.

The jihadis bolstered the government's argument that it was fighting terrorism. Western support for the rebels weakened.

The other rebel stronghold under assault is the cluster of working-class Damascus suburbs known as Eastern Ghouta, a jumble of unplanned concrete apartment houses and farms that has been cut off for years by a government siege.

The battle there has a different dynamic, a war of attrition with largely static front lines. The government has cut access to food and medicine for a population the United Nations puts at 400,000, half of them children. "A concentration camp," the leftist Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh called it.

But government forces have been unable to advance there lately, so they are intensifying the siege and bombardment.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, one of the worst barrages pummelled the area, killing more than 100 people. Residents posted photographs of a girl who had been killed, grinning in front of a wall of morning glories; a crying baby with his right foot blown off; and worse. An Agence France-Presse reporter described seeing five children, including his younger brother, killed by a bomb as they fetched water.

The rebels in Eastern Ghouta also have killed, on a smaller scale. They have shelled Damascus' Old City at least three times this year, killing 13 people, including several children, according to Syrian state media.

Even if the government retakes Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, that will not end the war.

International tensions threaten unpredictable new escalations like Turkey's recent incursion on the northern border, and a clash between Syrian and US forces in eastern Syria on Wednesday. Turkey aims to seize the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, and then press east to Manbij, where it would encounter US troops, who have vowed to defend it. Such an encounter could lead to an unprecedented armed conflict between two NATO allies.

New York Times