Russian and Syrian jets resumed intensive strikes in rebel-held Idlib and Hama on Sunday, Sept. 9, according to residents and rescuers.
Damascus stepped up its assault on the rebels’ last major stronghold after a Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit failed to agree on a ceasefire.
Residents and rescuers said Syrian army helicopters dropped barrel bombs—typically filled with high explosives and shrapnel—on al-Habeet and Abdin villages in southern Idlib and a string of other hamlets and villages in the area.
The Syrian army denies using barrel bombs. However, United Nations investigators have extensively documented their use by the army.
Russian jets were believed to have hit the nearby towns of Latamneh and Kafr Zeita in northern Hama in a succession of raids, according to an organization which monitors air strikes in Syria and a rebel source.
Damascus, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has been preparing a major assault to recover Idlib and adjacent areas of the northwest. The province is the rebels’ last major stronghold of active opposition to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Warnings of a Bloodbath
Russian and Syrian warplanes have resumed their bombing campaign a day after a summit of the presidents of Turkey, Iran, and Russia on Friday failed to agree on a ceasefire that would forestall the offensive.
Turkey and Western powers have warned of a bloodbath if a major Russian-backed bombing campaign is launched in the heavily populated northwestern province that borders Turkey.
The United Nations also said it feared a full-scale offensive could cause a humanitarian catastrophe involving tens of thousands of civilians.
So far the aerial strikes have not hit a major city in the province where over three million civilians, many displaced from other areas, have found refuge in the course of the conflict.
Russia says it avoids civilians and only targets radical al Qaeda-inspired groups but opposition sources and residents say most of the casualties in the last few days were civilians.
The opposition accuses Russia and its allies of striking at hospitals and civil defense centers to force rebels to surrender in a repeat of earlier, large-scale military offensives.
A U.S.-based medical charity that operates in the provinces said three hospitals and two civil defense centers were bombed in the last two days, “leaving thousands with no access to medical care”.
“It is distressing to see a rise in attacks on medical facilities…There are over three million civilians in this crowded area of Syria who are in a life-threatening situation,” Ghanem Tayara, head of Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) said in a statement.
The Idlib ‘Kill Box’ Conundrum
Many fear the Syrian regime has set up Idlib as an area into which foes are being funneled for a final decisive defeat, with Arab officials warning of the potential for Idlib to become a “kill box.”
Free Syrian Army-aligned rebel commanders concur. They have been making the “kill box” argument since Russian-backed regime forces last December drove insurgents from Aleppo.
Western military tacticians have suggested that concentrating the enemies of the Syrian government into a single kill-zone was the strategy of Russian and Iranian commanders, who have been providing crucial support to the regime’s war machine.
The conundrum is that Idlib is at once the last vestige of refuge for millions, and a region firmly controlled by the jihadist alliance Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has rejected de-escalation.
Idlib, according to Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, is “the only major enclave in Syria where the former official branch of Al Qaeda dominates. No force in the country appears to be ready to fight a sustained battle to reclaim the province in the foreseeable future.”
Russia, Iran, and Western powers all view HTS an irreconcilable terrorist organization that must be defeated by force.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), via its digital service Reliefweb, published a report (pdf) by the International Crisis Group called “Averting Disaster in Syria’s Idlib Province.”
The ICG argues that the way to prevent Idlib from turning into a bloodbath is for Turkey to work with moderate rebels in the province to overthrow hardline Islamists and work toward a permanent peace.
“Turkey should deploy along the front line in cooperation with Russia, which should press the Syrian regime to delay, or even desist from, its assault,” the ICG writes.
“This would buy time for renewed Turkish efforts to curtail transnational jihadist influence within HTS in favour of militants more open to de-escalation and compromise.”
With the apparent growing appetite on the part of the Syrian government for military intervention in Idlib, the ICG call is becoming increasingly urgent.
Epoch Times reporter Tom Ozimek contributed to this report.