Intensifying fighting in Syria′s Idlib threatens fragile ceasefire
Syrian government and allied Russian warplanes pounded the last rebel-held enclave in northwestern Syria for the fourth day on Friday, forcing thousands of civilians to flee.
The stepped-up attacks in Idlib province threaten a fragile eight-month ceasefire agreement reached between Russia and Turkey to avert a Syrian regime offensive against an array of jihadi groups and rebel factions that could displace hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in the “most violent escalation” since the formation of a Turkey-Russia monitored deescalation zone at least 39 people have been killed in the past four days. Among them were 27 civilians, eight jihadi fighters and four soldiers or militiamen loyal to the Syrian regime.
Some 30 districts in rural Hama and Idlib lying within the deescalation zone were targeted by Syrian government and Russian warplanes in dozens of airstrikes, the watchdog added. Regime helicopters were also reported to have dropped 93 indiscriminate barrel bombs on several areas in the Idlib and Hama countryside over the past day.
Syria, Russia respond to attacks
Syrian state media said “terrorists” were targeted. Idlib is held by several rebel groups, the most powerful of which is the al-Qaida-linked Tahrir al-Sham.
The latest escalation comes as Moscow and Damascus accused jihadi forces of carrying out multiple assaults since early April, including a dozen attempts to attack Russia’s Hmeymim air base using drones and missiles.
The Russian Defense Ministry this week said all the attacks on its base were repelled and dismissed claims by militants that four Russian soldiers were killed in a separate attack.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 159 regime soldiers and militia fighters loyal to them have been killed in the deescalation zone since mid-February. Some 300 civilians have been killed over the same period, alongside 88 rebels.
Idlib: Jihadi-controlled displacement camp
Around 300,000 people live in the buffer zone where hostilities continue, while 3 million people, many of them internally displaced from fighting in other parts of Syria, live in Idlib.
The UN said it was deeply concerned by an escalation of fighting threatening to displace civilians.
“These increased hostilities are triggering large-scale displacement, from northern Hama and southern Idlib. There are also reports of deserted villages after civilians fled for safety. An estimated 323,000 people are estimated to have been displaced in the northwest since September of last year,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said late Thursday.
Turkey, which backs some rebel factions, and Russia, a key backer of Damascus, agreed to establish a deescalation zone that includes southern Idlib, northern Hama and parts of Latakia in September.
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The agreement came amid international concern that a Syrian regime offensive would displace hundreds of thousands of vulnerable civilians and send a flood of refugees and extremist fighters to Turkey — and potentially onto Europe.
With the backing of Iran and Russia, President Bashar Assad has regained control over most of the country, except for a US-backed Kurdish zone in the northeast. Assad has vowed to take back all territory once under his control.