A Syrian government offensive to capture the northern province of Idlib has killed dozens of civilians and forced more than 200,000 people to flee over the past month, leading to fears of a major humanitarian crisis in the last rebel-held bastion.
The Syrian army, backed by its ally Russia, launched an attack in late April aimed at retaking key roads and trade routes around Idlib and northern Hama, which the government sees as vital to consolidating its control over the north of the country.
At least 18 hospitals have been targeted and put out of action by the intensive bombing campaign, according to the World Health Organisation, and dozens of civilians have been killed in the worst violence to hit the province since last summer.
Amnesty International said it had documented a “deliberate and systematic assault” by Russian and Syrian government forces on hospitals and other medical facilities, which together constituted “crimes against humanity.”
In that same time, more than 150 people have died in the fighting, according to United Nations, while Save the Children said that at least 38 children have been killed by shelling.
Local reports indicated that bombing resumed on Monday after a temporary ceasefire gave some respite to residents of Idlib over the weekend.
The renewed violence has sent waves of civilians fleeing from areas near the frontlines of the battle to towns and villages further north, where aid groups were already struggling to deal with more than a million displaced people from all over Syria.
Mohannad Darwish, a 28-year-old from near the town of Kafranbel, was among the tens of thousands who fled north to safety.
"There were lots of air strikes and barrel bombs. In the worst areas there were bombs every minute, in others ever hour," he told The Independent by phone.
"Lots of buildings were destroyed and lots of people died. It was so bad you couldn’t even move.
"They did not distinguish between civilians and non civilians," he added.
Yasser, who lives in the northern Idlib countryside, has watched waves of people arrive in his area over the past few weeks.
“People are sleeping in empty shops because they can’t afford to rent or can’t find a place in a camp,” he said by phone.
“Most of them have fled because of heavy shelling. Some have come because the regime took control of their villages,” he added.
Mercy Corps, a US humanitarian group working in Syria, said food prices had risen by up to 45 per cent in some areas, and last week a group of 70 aid groups warned that conditions in Idlib had reached “crisis point”.
The latest round of violence to hit Idlib comes at a time of increased confidence on the part of the Syrian government, as it looks to further cement its control over a country that has been devastated by eight years of war.
Idlib represents the last area held by the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s rule, following the defeat of the fragmented rebels in the south of the country. The threat of a full-scale offensive has hung over the province for more than a year. Government forces began amassing around the edges of the territory in September 2018, prompting the United Nations to warn of a “bloodbath” if the offensive went ahead.
An attack appeared to have been averted at the last minute by an agreement between Turkey and Russia – but that may now be unravelling. As part of that deal, Turkey was tasked with using its influence in the province, where it backs a number of rebel groups and has troops on the ground, to force extremist groups to withdraw from a “buffer zone”.
The largest of those groups is Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), led by the former Syrian offshoot of al Qaeda and classified as a terror group by the United Nations. In the time since the deal was announced, HTS has strengthened its control over Idlib, and forced other factions backed by Turkey to accept a peace deal recognising civilian control by an administration it controls.
“The latest bout of fighting in Idlib is the consequence of a deliberate policy of the Assad government and its Russian allies to test the resolve of Turkey. Pure and simple, Assad and the Russians want the matter of Idlib resolved, preferably by the Turks,” Nicholas Heras, senior analyst at the Center for a New American Security, told The Independent.
“An indefinite Syrian rebel zone of control in Idlib is unacceptable to Damascus and Moscow. The point of the Idlib demilitarized zone was to confine the rebels under Turkish guardianship and then remove them completely.
"Now Assad and the Russians are taking matters into their own hands, and taking the war to the Syrian rebels, whether Turkey likes it or not,” he added.
At a UN Security Council meeting on Friday, Russia’s ambassador Vassily Nebenzya told said Russia “categorically reject accusations of violations of international humanitarian law.”
"Not the Syrian army, or the Syrian air force, or Russia are conducting hostilities against civilians or civilian infrastructure. Our goal is the terrorists," he added.
But in nearly a month of fighting, Syrian and Russian forces have yet to make a major breakthrough, and civilians are bearing the brunt. The Syrian government’s quest to cement its control has even extended to areas it has already recaptured from rebels.
Supplies taken to families in Idlib, northwest Syria
At the same time as it presses forward in the northern province, rights groups have reported a wave of arrests in “liberated” areas.
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday accused Syrian intelligence branches of “arbitrarily detaining, disappearing, and harassing people in areas retaken from anti-government groups”.
The organisation said that former armed and political opposition leaders, media activists, aid workers, defectors, and family members of activists — many of whom had signed reconciliation agreements with the government — had been rounded up in several areas in the south.
“Active combat has ended in much of Syria, but nothing has changed in the way intelligence branches trample rights of perceived opponents of Assad’s rule,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“Lack of due process, arbitrary arrests, and harassment, even in so-called reconciled areas, speak louder than empty government promises of return, reform, and reconciliation.”