Syrian government forces and their Russian allies pounded the rebel-held northwest with fresh air strikes on Saturday, the fifth day of a widening campaign that has killed dozens of people and forced thousands to flee, sources in the area and a war monitor said. The upsurge in violence in Idlib and nearby areas has strained a Russian-Turkish agreement struck last September that staved off a government offensive into the last major foothold of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
A rebel spokesman told Reuters government attempts to advance into the Qalaat al-Madiq area had been repelled. Rebels were shelling government positions, added Naji Mustafa of the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) rebel grouping. Syrian state media has said government forces are attacking jihadists. State news agency SANA said the army had destroyed jihadist positions in southern Idlib and nearby Hama province on Saturday in response to what it called repeated violations of a de-escalation agreement.
But the U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator has said schools, health facilities and residential areas have been hit and the government forces are employing the worst barrel bombing in at least 15 months. Barrel bombs are containers packed with explosives dropped from helicopters.
After an overnight lull, the bombardment escalated again on Saturday, said Ahmad al-Dbis, safety and security manager for the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which supports medical facilities in the area. "Now the bombing has returned and is much heavier and has spread very widely in Jabal al-Zawiya and rural northern Hama.
The planes are not stopping at all and the bombing is continuing in a very big way like yesterday and worse," he told Reuters from northern Syria. The Syrian Civil Defense, a rescue service operating in rebel-held areas, said it had recorded more than 30 deaths in the last few days. Dbis said the number of dead was at least 50 while the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war, said at least 67 people had been killed.
Hundreds of vehicles have been arriving every day in the town of Atmeh at the Turkish border, ferrying people away from the targeted areas, an Atmeh resident contacted by Reuters said. Mustafa al-Haj Yousef, the Civil Defense director for Idlib, said more than 130,000 people had fled towards more secure areas, adding: "Civil Defense centres have been targeted directly." UOSSM says four medical facilities have been bombed. Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week he did not rule out Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, launching a full-scale assault on militants in Idlib province, but that such an operation was impractical for now.
Russia's deal with Turkey, which backs the anti-Assad opposition, demanded the creation of a demilitarised zone free of all heavy weapons and jihadists. But Moscow says the agreement has not been implemented. The most powerful faction in the northwest is Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist movement that emerged from the Nusra Front, formerly al Qaeda's official Syrian affiliate. Its influence has grown as it has snuffed out rival groups. But other factions operating under the NLF umbrella still have a presence. Mustafa, their spokesman, said Damascus was well aware the rebels were well armed and capable of repelling any assault: "The regime will not be able to advance."
(With inputs from agencies.)