A suspected chlorine gas attack on an underground hospital in the rebel-held north of Syria's Hama governorate killed three people and injured dozens on March 25, as Assad regime forces attempt to drive back a rebel offensive in the area, local medical personnel told independent news website Syria Direct. A helicopter dropped a large yellow canister through the concrete roof of the Latamna Surgical Hospital, according to hospital personnel. Chlorine gas was then released, according to the account, spreading throughout the the underground facility. Trapped in the poorly ventilated facility, 35 people were injured—14 of them medical personnel—and three were reportedly killed, including a surgeon. "One of the victims smelled as if he just came out of a swimming pool," said Bilal Abdul Kareem of On the Ground News, reporting from the scene in the aftermath of the attack.
Fierce clashes broke out in Damascus this week after rebel fighters infiltrated the city through tunnels, breaching the regime's security perimeter. The surprise offensive marked a rare advance after months of steady losses for rebel forces across Syria. The Iraqi Shi'ite militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba announced that it has joined pro-regime forces in the defense of Jobar and Abbasin districts, the outlying areas that came under attack. The militia is said to be effectively led by officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, against ponting to Tehran's critical role in support of the Bashar Assad regime.
A new Qaeda affiliate in Syria has claimed responsibility for a March 11 double bomb attack targeting Shi'ite pilgrims in Damascus that killed at least 40 Iraqis and wounded 120 more. Footage broadcast by Syrian state TV showed two buses with their windows blown out, the surroundings splattered with blood and littered with lost shoes and clothing. The attack took place near Bab al-Saghir cemetery, named for one of the seven gates of the Old City of Damascus. The pilgrims had arrived to pray at the cemetery after visiting the Sayeda Zeinab shrine outside Damascus, where the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said to be buried. In a statement claiming responsibility, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Organization) said the attack was "a message to Iran" over its support for the Bashar Assad regime. The group is identified as a breakaway faction of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front) that has maintained ties with al-Qaeda. (BBC News, Reuters)
A militant said to be al-Qaeda's second-in-command was killed by a US drone strike in Syria's Idlib governorate, rebel leaders said Feb. 27. Egypt-born Abu al-Khayr al-Masri (formerly Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abdel Rahman), the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, was reportedly a close aide to al-Qaeda's current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The drone attack on his vehicle was reported by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Body, HTS), a newly formed alliance led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the former Nusra Front. (MEE, BBC News, Feb. 27) Two days earlier, HTS claimed responsibility for a suicide blast in Homs that killed a Syrian senior military intelligence official who was reportedly close to dictator Bashar Assad. The official, Gen. Hassan Daabul, was slain along with several others when a suicide bomber penetrated a security complex in the city. An HTS statement said its "inghimasi fighters" were responsible for the raid, and claimed that some 40 personnel were killed. (LWJ, Feb. 25)
Late last year, when the evacuation of Aleppo began as the city fell to Assad regime forces backed by Russian air-strikes, we noted that residents were being sent to Idlib governorate, which is both under control of jihadist factions and also targeted for air-strikes and eventual conquest by the regime and its Russian patrons. So secularists fleeing Aleppo were likely to find no refuge from either regime or opposition forces in Idlib. Now comes the news that Radio Fresh, voice of the embattled secularist civil resistance in the Idlib town of Kafranbel, is being censored by the jihadists—and finding a creative way to resist. The FM station's manager Raed Fares told BBC News that they've been broadcasting hours of barnyard sounds each day to protest and mock censorious orders from local militants of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front). "They tried to force us to stop playing music on air," said Fares. "So we started to play animals in the background as a kind of sarcastic gesture against them."
This week's recapture of the Wadi Barada enclave outside Damascus by the Bashar Assad regime's forces points to a deft strategy by the regime and its Russian backers. The valley had been excluded from the supposed "ceasefire" because of the presence there of a small number of fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—the former Nusra Front, which was officially excluded from the ceasefire. This means, effectively, the ceasefire not only doesn't apply to ex-Nusra, but also does not apply to any forces that have (often of necessity) allied with ex-Nusra—or even that just happen to be near ex-Nusra and not actively fighting them. This strategy seems to have had the desired effect. Nusra's former ally, Ahrar al-Sham, is now reported to have turned on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, sparking an internal civil war within rebel-held areas of Idlib governorate. (Al Jazeera, Feb. 2; Al Jazeera, Jan. 29)
President Trump said Jan. 25 that he "will absolutely do safe zones in Syria" for those displaced by violence, and a leaked draft of his impending executive order apparently directs the State Department and Pentagon to present a plan to him within 90 days. But this was presented in explicitly xenophobic terms—not humanitarian. In making the announcement, he dissed Europe's leaders for taking in Syrian refugees. Trump said that Germany and other European countries made a "tremendous mistake by allowing these millions of people... I don't want that to happen here." (LAT, Reuters)
Russia signed a long-term agreement Jan. 20 to greatly enlarge its military presence in Syria, more than doubling the space for warships at Tartus, Russia's only Mediterranean port, and securing rights to Khmeimim air base, where a second runway is foreseen. The deal came as a Turkish official suggested publicly for the first time that Turkey would accept a Syrian peace deal that would allow Bashar Assad to stay in power. The remarks by the official, deputy prime minister Mehmet Simsek, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, represent a fundamental shift. (NYT, Jan. 20) Two days earlier, Russian and Turkish jets carried out their first joint strikes ins Syria, the Russian defence ministry says. Supposed ISIS targets were hit in al-Bab, Aleppo governorate, where Turkey suffered heavy casualties last month battling the group on the ground. (BBC News, Jan. 18)