BEIRUT: At least 67 people have been killed and 130,000 have fled their homes as Assad regime and Russian forces pound Idlib in northwest Syria with airstrikes and barrel bombs.
The escalation in violence is the most serious in Idlib since Russia and Turkey negotiated a cease-fire in September, averting a major regime offensive on the last major opposition stronghold in Syria.
“The bombing has returned and is much heavier and has spread very widely in Jabal Al-Zawiya and rural northern Hama,” said UN regional humanitarian coordinator Ahmad Al-Dbis. “The planes are not stopping at all and the bombing is continuing in a very big way.”
Schools, health facilities and residential areas have been hit and Assad regime forces are employing the worst barrel bombing in at least 15 months, he said.
Hundreds of vehicles have been arriving every day in the town of Atmeh at the Turkish border, ferrying people away from the targeted areas. Mustafa Al-Haj Yousef, the civil defense director for Idlib, said more than 130,000 people had fled toward more secure areas. “Civil defense centers have been targeted directly,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week he did not rule out Assad forces backed by Russian air power launching a full-scale assault on militants in Idlib province, but it was impractical for now.
Russia’s deal with Turkey was supposed to create a demilitarized zone free of heavy weapons and militants, but Moscow says the agreement has not been implemented.
The most powerful militant group in Idlib is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which emerged from the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate. Its influence has grown as it has snuffed out rival groups. But other factions operating under the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front umbrella still have a presence.
Their spokesman, Naji Mustafa, said Damascus knew the opposition forces were well armed and capable of repelling any assault. “The regime will not be able to advance,” he said.
Mustafa said regime attempts to advance into the Qalaat Al-Madiq area had been repelled, and opposition forces were shelling regime positions.
Syrian political opposition spokesman Yahya Al-Aridi told Arab News the Assad regime and Russia were using the bombardment of Idlib to cover up their failure to begin a political process that would lead to a solution to the eight-year-old conflict.
“Secondly, it is to exercise pressure on the opposition to submit to their unacceptable diktats concerning the implementation of UNSC resolutions, the Geneva communique and Resolution 2254 in particular with regard to the constitutional committee.”
Al-Aridi said they also want to punish the West with the burden of refugees. “They know there are close to 4 million civilians in Idlib and they have nowhere to go but to flee to Turkey and Europe.”