Fears are rising that Syria will end a cease-fire and restart a Russian-backed offensive that aid groups warn would be a “bloodbath” in a rebel-held northern province.
A peace conference ended Thursday with “no tangible progress” toward ending the eight-year civil war. And earlier in the week, Russia launched airstrikes in Idlib province after a suspected chemical attack on the government-held city of Aleppo. Syria and Russia say rebels in an area covered in a de-escalation agreement lobbed gas-filled mortars that sickened more than 100.
Russia said it had asked the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate. Representatives of the organization, set up by the U.N. to investigate such attacks, have yet to arrive. Rebel groups claim the gas attack was a false flag operation meant to give Syria and Russia cover to attack.
Moscow’s airstrikes on Sunday kicked off a round of tit-for-tat attacks that have rocked the fragile 10-week cease-fire in Idlib. It also prompted a spate of diplomatic sparring between Damascus and its ally Russia on one side and the U.S. on the other.
A Pentagon spokesman warned in a statement this week that “it is essential to ensure that the Syrian regime does not seize on false pretexts to undermine this cease-fire and launch an offensive in Idlib.”
Past allegations of chemical weapon attacks in Syria have spurred worldwide condemnation as well as strikes against the government of President Bashar Assad, which has been widely blamed for deploying ordnance filled with chlorine and sarin gas against its rebel adversaries throughout the almost eight-year civil war.
In Saturday’s attack, there were no deaths, but 107 people from three neighborhoods of the city were affected, state and pro-government media said.
Doctors interviewed by the state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency said patients showed symptoms including blurred vision, red eyes and vomiting, thought to be the result of exposure to chlorine.
“We started tearing up and gagging. It was like pepper,” one man who had rushed his son to the hospital said in an interview with Syrian state TV.
Nasr Hariri, head of the rebel negotiation team taking part in talks held in Astana, Kazakhstan, expressed doubts about allegations of a chemical attack, tweeting that the operation was “an excuse to open up military action in northern Syria and move away from [fulfilling] any entitlements in the political process.”
From the talks on Thursday, Russia, Turkey and Iran issued a joint statement expressing “concern with the ongoing violations of the cease-fire regime.”
The three countries in September had announced the creation of a demilitarized zone over parts of Idlib; under the agreement, the rebels would give up their heavy weaponry and Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadis and other extremists would have to leave.
The agreement stalled a Russian-backed government offensive on Idlib, a campaign that aid organizations said would displace hundreds of thousands in the province, home to almost 3 million people, according to U.N.estimates.
The Astana statement came a day after the Pentagon cautioned Russia “against tampering with another suspected chemical weapons attack site.” A spokesman, Cmdr. Sean Robertson, also warned Russia to ensure the safety of chemical weapons inspectors. Russian experts began analysis of soil samples and shell fragments from the area this week.
Aleppo, a city once divided between spheres of government and opposition control, was retaken by a Russian-backed government offensive in December 2016. But rebels bunkered in the countryside outside the city and in Idlib province are still able to mount attacks.
On Wednesday, SANA reported three mortar shells fell on residential areas in Aleppo, causing property damage but no casualties.
It was yet another reminder that, though the war is winding down with Assad as its victor, there has yet to be a comprehensive reconciliation with his adversaries.
Steffan de Mistura, the outgoing United Nations special envoy to Syria, hinted as much in a statement from Astana on Thursday, saying that there had been “no tangible progress in overcoming the 10-month stalemate on the composition of the constitutional committee.”
Mistura was referring to a longstanding demand by the opposition to be involved in rewriting Syria’s constitution.