For Syrians In Rebel Areas, Russian Airstrikes Add To Their Misery
Russia's offensive in support of the Syrian government has managed to do what seemed impossible: It's made life even more dangerous for many Syrians. These are people in areas controlled by rebels who want to cast off the four-decade rule of the Assad family.
Abdel Rahman al-Yehiya is an archaeologist in Syria's rebel-held province of Idlib. He's long since severed ties with the government antiquities ministry, which he says is corrupt, and committed himself to preservation work in rebel-held areas.
He and his family are sticking it out under daily bombardments. His 5-year-old daughter, Mariam, comes and sits on his lap while we Skype.
Yehiya says that in his area, they formed their own local government with courts and organized departments. But as Russian bombing got worse this week, the schools closed and the kids are at home.
His daughter can already tell the difference between Syrian military planes and the Russian aircraft now in the skies.
Her father asks, "Where do we hide when the planes come?"
"In the caves! In the caves!" she squeals.
Until a week ago, Yehiya thought the Assad regime was on its last legs, that it wasn't strong enough to go on the offensive anymore. But now, with Russian air support, government forces have been launching ground attacks into rebel-held areas in the neighboring province.
Yehiya accuses the Russians of striking a World Heritage Site popularly known as the Dead Cities, where impoverished, displaced families have taken shelter in hopes that the ancient archaeological ruins, dating back nearly 2,000 years, will be spared the bombardments.
"That was the biggest surprise," Yehiya says. Since the alleged strikes, those families have been forced to scatter.
Russia accuses "terrorists" of hiding in archaeological sites, but says that its forces would never bomb heritage sites.
Yehiya says Russian strikes start in the morning and continue through the night, targeting rebel groups and civilian areas alike. He says the intensity of the raids has prompted a new wave of displacement.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group that tracks rights violations and death tolls through an extensive network of sources on the ground, says that more than 50 civilians have been killed in the Russian strikes over the past week.
Russia says the strikes are targeting ISIS, but State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that more than 90 percent of Russian strikes have not been against ISIS or al-Qaida. Instead, they're against "groups that want a better future for Syria."
Moustafa Maarati says his unit of the Free Syrian Army, which receives U.S. backing, was one of them. He says that a Russian Defense Ministry video released last week claiming to show an ISIS base actually was his base.
He says Syrian warplanes normally come alone or in pairs, but the Russian planes come in squadrons of up to four at a time. Their bombardments are more powerful than the Syrian regime's.
On Wednesday, Syrian troops backed by Russian warplanes made their first coordinated assault against rebels in Hama Province, an area where Free Syrian Army units have received TOW anti-tank missiles from the U.S. and its allies.
Rebels claimed to have destroyed more than a dozen government tanks in the first day of fighting, and they forced down a helicopter on Thursday. Russian and regime warplanes responded with fierce bombardments, according to the Syrian Observatory.
Residents of rebel-held areas say they were encouraged by the Free Syrian Army putting up such a fight, but they're worried for the long term.
Muzna al-Jundi runs a women's education center in the northern rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan. She says that when Russian planes bombed a village about 10 miles away, the ground shook like an earthquake. She says residents believe Russian drones are buzzing overhead all the time.
Her women's center, Women Now, offers everything from vocational training to courses in English and French. She refused to close the center this week, despite intensified attacks.
Jundi says she doesn't want to let anyone down. Even if 10 women show up, it's something. But she says people are more afraid for the future than ever before. If the regime forces close in, everyone — even she — is on the terrorist list.
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