Russia on Thursday opposed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an end to attacks on health facilities in Syria's Idlib region, diplomats said, after the latest meeting over violence in the country's last major opposition bastion.
The outcome led to a rare statement following a meeting by the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, "the carnage must stop," he said. Kuwait, Germany and Belgium asked for the hastily called closed-door session, the latest of many they have sought since May in response to worsening fighting in Syria's northwest.
The draft text, given to journalists, expressed "grave concern regarding the recent attacks on hospitals and other health facilities," including a July 10 attack on Maarat National Hospital, one of the largest in the area and whose coordinates had been shared through the U.N. "deconfliction mechanism" that aims to spare civilian targets. Russia, however, denied bombing such facilities once again.
"I provided information from my Ministry of Defense" and an investigation demonstrated that there were "no attacks at nine out of 11 facilities" allegedly attacked, Moscow's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters.
"The two others were partially damaged but not by Russian" forces, he said. His British counterpart, Karen Pierce, seemed skeptical.
"There's some interest in an investigation into the Maarat Hospital hit. So I think that's the thing to focus on," she said at the end of the meeting.
"We've got our suspicions. But let's get a proper look into that and get a proper answer." Lowcock said after the meeting that since July 1, "at least six health facilities, five schools, three water stations, two bakeries and one ambulance have been damaged or destroyed." "Entire villages have been destroyed and emptied" because of airstrikes, he said. Regime airstrikes on Tuesday killed 11 civilians in Idlib's south, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week strongly condemned airstrikes in the region following reports from a Syrian doctors' group that four health facilities including the Maarat National Hospital facility were hit during a single day of bombing.
Opposition forces reiterate active involvement of Russian troops in Idlib
Meanwhile, opposition commanders reiterated that Russia has sent special forces in recent days to actively fight alongside the Syrian regime forces in Idlib.
Speaking to the Anadolu Agency (AA), Capt. Naji Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) coalition of opposition factions, said: "We see that Russian army troops have been actively fighting with the regime forces in the front."
Stating that Russian special forces have been involved in recent clashes in northern Hama, Mustafa added: "Russian forces led elite regime troops known as the Tiger Forces."
Russia, a staunch ally of the Bashar Assad regime in the Middle Eastern country's multisided civil war, has been providing airstrike support to the regime forces. The offensive has resulted in the deaths of more than 600 civilians and displaced 300,000 people, the Observatory has reported.
However, it was the first time Russian soldiers were directly involved in clashes in the front, according to opposition commanders. The Russian ground forces were involved in the fighting with the regime on the Humaymat hilltops in northern Hama that fell into opposition hands last week. With the Russian army's involvement, the hilltops were regained from the opposition forces after aborted successive attempts by the regime.
The Russian military on Thursday denied claims by Syrian opposition groups that there are active Russian ground forces in the war-torn country.
"There have been no Russian ground forces in Syria, and there are none at present," the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement carried by state news agency TASS.
Russian military police are patrolling the de-escalation zone in Syria's north-western Idlib province, near the Turkish border, according to an agreement with Turkey, the ministry said.
Turkey, which has supported certain opposition groups, is concerned about the possibility that fighting in the Idlib region will incite another mass exodus of refugees into Turkey.
The Assad regime intensified its attacks starting April 26 under the pretext of fighting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants holed up in Idlib, despite the de-escalation agreement. The Assad regime's intermittent attacks and bombardment have killed, wounded and displaced thousands of people in Idlib. Civilian areas have been destroyed by indiscriminate attacks, while numerous educational facilities, health facilities and residential areas have collapsed or have become unusable after being targeted by bombs. Despite the fact that almost three months have passed since the Assad regime launched the offensive, it has suffered from grave losses and made no gains on the ground, except some areas that often change hands.
The head of a major opposition group said Moscow's deployment of undisclosed numbers of ground forces came only after elite regime troops known as the Tiger Forces and allied militias were unable to make "any significant territorial gains."
"The Syrian army found itself in a crisis and were forced to ask for Russian troops on the battlefield," said Jamil al-Saleh, the head of the Jaish al-Izza opposition group. Being the last opposition enclave, Idlib's prewar population of 1.5 million has swelled to around 3 million with new refugee waves after it was designated a de-escalation zone under the Astana agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran in May 2017 to pave the way for a permanent political solution in Syria. Tens of thousands of Syrians trapped in other parts of the country were evacuated there under various cease-fire agreements.
Meanwhile, a U.S. delegation is expected to visit Turkey for a study group on Syria.