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Executive Summary for February 16th

We review developments in Syria, including the death of at least 50 civilians in strikes on hospitals and schools in the north, the third day of Turkish cross-border shelling of Kurdish militia positions and Assad’s lack of faith in the internationally backed cease-fire plan set to start later this week.

Published on Feb. 16, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

50 Civilians Killed in Strikes on Hospitals and Schools in North

At least 50 civilians were killed in missile strikes on at least five medical facilities and two schools in northern Syria on Monday, according to the United Nations, intensifying the country’s humanitarian crisis in the face of plans for a temporary cease-fire later this week.

The global charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported that at least seven people were killed and eight were missing and presumed dead after rockets hit an MSF-supported clinic in Idlib.

“The destruction on the … facility appears to be a deliberate attack on a health structure,” said MSF’s head of mission Massimiliano Rebaudengo in a press release shortly after the incident. “The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of around 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict.”

At least five medical facilities and two schools in Idlib and the neighboring province of Aleppo were targeted on Monday, a U.N. spokesperson said.

U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirkby said Monday’s attack on civilian infrastructure “casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability” to stop Bashar al-Assad’s government from carrying out further strikes on civilians.

Monday’s carnage comes as pro-government forces backed by heavy Russian airstrikes, Iranian troops and Iraqi and Lebanese militia fighters make significant gains against rebel forces throughout northern Syria.

Turkey Bombs Kurds as YPG Advance Continues

Turkey conducted its third consecutive day of cross-border airstrikes on Monday targeting Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, warning of a “harsh response” if Kurdish militias do not withdraw from their positions near the border.

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition between the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Arab militias, made gains in the town of Tal Rifaat on Monday, edging closer to the rebel stronghold of Azaz in northern Aleppo along the Turkish border.

Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday he would not allow YPG forces to take the city of Azaz.

“If they approach again, they will see the harshest reaction. We will not allow Azaz to fall,” he said, pledging to make the Syrian Minnigh air base, captured by the YPG last week, “unusable” if Kurdish forces did not withdraw from the area.

The SDF pushed out the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front on Monday from 70 percent of the city of Tal Rifaat, just south of Azaz, according to Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia has taken over a large amount of territory in recent days from Islamist rebels along the Turkish border, exploiting a heavy Russian-backed offensive by pro-government forces against rebel groups in the area.

YPG advances in the area have alarmed Ankara, which accuses the group of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a Kurdish separatist group the government views as terrorists.

The SDF/YPG advances come amid multi-sided fighting in Aleppo province, where the Syrian military and its allied militias, so-called “moderate” Arab rebel groups, Islamic extremists with ISIS and al-Nusra Front, and Kurdish militias are all battling each other for supremacy.

Assad Says Cease-Fire Plan is “Difficult”

Bashar al-Assad said on Monday that the internationally backed cease-fire set to begin later this week would be “difficult” to implement, Agence France-Presse reports.

The Syrian president’s comments mark the first time he has addressed the plan for a “cessation of hostilities” agreed to by world leaders in Munich last Friday.

“They are saying they want a cease-fire in a week. Who is capable of gathering all the conditions and requirements in a week? No one,” said Assad in a televised statement.

“Who will talk to the terrorists? If a terrorist group refuses the cease-fire, who will hold them to account? Practically, talking (about a cease-fire) is difficult,” he said.

The cease-fire set to start later this week does not include al-Nusra Front of the Islamic State group (ISIS), and the details of how the plan would be implemented remain to be worked out.

A cease-fire could not only mean “that everyone stops using their weapons,” said Assad. “This is the narrow sense.”

“A cease-fire must mean stopping terrorists from strengthening their positions. Moving weapons, equipment, terrorists or strengthening positions must all be forbidden” he said.

U.N. special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura arrived at Damascus on Monday to discuss the cease-fire plan and the U.N.’s efforts to renew peace talks later this month.

Recommended Reads

Top image: Turkish medics carry a wounded Syrian boy to a hospital in Kilis, Turkey. An airstrike in the northern Syrian province of Idlib destroyed a makeshift clinic supported by an international aid group on Monday, killing and wounding several people, activists and the group said. (Associated Press)

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