Russia acknowledges its ground troops are fighting in Idlib

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has acknowledged for the first time the presence of Russian military fighting alongside Syrian regime forces in the Idlib assault, confirming numerous earlier reports.

During a press conference he held following a meeting with Ghana’s Foreign Minister Shirley Botchway yesterday, Lavrov confirmed that “There are Russian soldiers on the ground in the Syrian province of Idlib,” stating that Russia would respond to any attack on its soldiers in Syria.

The acknowledgment by Russia of its direct military presence on the ground in the province is the first which has been made following months of speculation and reports of the troops’ presence over the past month, particularly after Syrian opposition forces sighted the deployment of Russian troops in July.

While Russia has supported the regime throughout the eight-year conflict and provided aerial support and intelligence in order to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power, it did not previously involve itself in fighting on the ground until last month. The move came after the regime’s all-out land and air assault on Idlib – the last major opposition stronghold in the country – was making slow progress and was constantly impeded by the opposition forces.

Following the deployment of Russian ground troops assisting regime forces, the assault on the province has made rapid gains, with several towns and villages in southern Idlib and northern Hama being overtaken by the coalition over the past week. The latest devastating loss for the Syrian opposition is the city of Khan Sheikhoun and its surrounding hills and checkpoints, which fell into the regime’s hands yesterday morning.

Lavrov’s confirmation of the presence of Russian troops and the subsequent advance by the regime comes amid the opposition’s confirmation last week of Iranian forces also fighting alongside the regime.

The direct involvement of both Russia and Iran in the campaign to recapture Idlib, instead of sticking to their previous roles of providing advisory, aerial and logistical support, presents a bleak outlook for the survival of the Syrian opposition as well as the civilians inhabiting the province who have been suffering under intense bombardment since the assault began in April.

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The Turkish Defense Ministry has condemned Syria for attacking its convoy in the Syrian province of Idlib. Damascus said the vehicles were transporting weapons and ammo to “terrorist forces.” Ankara said three people were killed and 12 others injured on Monday after the Syrian airstrike, which targeted a Turkish military convoy travelling between two observation points in northern Syria. The statement said all victims were civilians, without explaining how they were involved in a military operation.

At least 10 civilians were killed in attacks carried out by Russian and Syrian regime forces in the de-escalation zone in northern Syria, the White Helmets civil defense agency said on Thursday, Anadolu Agency reports. According to Mustafa Haj Yusuf, head of the White Helmets in Idlib province, 10 people were killed in the airstrikes on late Wednesday.

Turkey has for days been poised to unilaterally invade northern Syria over US objections, which Ankara officials say is to establish a 32 kilometer (20 mile) inside the war torn country, giving Turkey complete control of a region where the Syrian Kurdish YPG operates (People’s Protection Units). Turkey has long considered the US-backed group, which forms the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to be a terrorist extension of the outlawed PKK. 

At least 25 people have been killed in aerial bombardment carried out by Russian jet fighters in Idlib region, with schools and medical centres knocked down during a continued Syrian military offensive. The rebel stronghold of northwestern Syria despite being part of a buffer-zone deal has come under deadly regime bombardment in recent weeks, sparking fears for its roughly three million residents.

Doctors working in rebel-held northern Syria will no longer share the locations of medical facilities with the United Nations after doing so failed to stop them being targeted by airstrikes.

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