Russian air strikes on Syria’s Idlib resumed on Saturday – the most intense in months – bringing back dark days to the opposition province already battered by weeks of regime shelling. Activists said that double tap bombing targeted hospitals, bakeries and civil rescue centres, despite the deployment of Turkish troops to a de-escalation zone in Idlib on Friday. Russian attacks were widespread on northern opposition areas – resulting in scores of civilians being killed on a daily basis – until Russia and Turkey agreed a ceasefire in September.
But Syrian regime artillery have for weeks bombarded opposition towns and villages in northern Syria bringing civilian life to a halt. NGOs have warned that they have been forced to suspend some humanitarian services in parts of Idlib and Hama as tens of thousands of civilians flee their homes.
At least 160 residents, including 60 children, have been killed in daily bombardments of opposition areas over the past weeks.
NGOs say the situation has become so stark that they have been forced to halt operations inside Syria, leaving thousands of children without access to schools and disrupting civilian life.
“The humanitarian situation is very bad and work in schools and communities centres have stopped in areas such as Maarat al-Numan, Saraqib and northern Hama due to the continuous shelling,” Lubna al-Kanawati, country manager for the Women Now For Development, told The New Arab.
Shelling by regime forces have forced around 90,000 people living in areas close to the frontlines – and some further afield – to flee their homes since the assaults began last month, according to the Response Coordination Team.
The group reported that even when the shelling ends, the “large-scale destruction” of dozens of villages and towns will continue to stretch the resources of humanitarian groups, due to huge areas of Idlib now without basic infrastructure.
Maher al-Kasim from the RMTeam confirmed to The New Arab that some humanitarian work has been halted due to the regime salvos into Idlib towns and villages.
“Many temporarily stopped their work but continued later once the bombing lessened,” Kassim said.
He said that around 80 percent of people living in towns and villages near the front-lines – such as Khan Sheikhoun – have fled their homes, where the infrastructure has been decimated. It has compounded the problems for overstretched aid workers in opposition Idlib and Aleppo provinces, which are home to around 3.7 million people.
Mohammed Hallaj, manager of the Response Coordination Group, which assists refugees in northwestern Syria, said that since 2 February when regime shelling started, 92 villages in the de-escalation zone have been shelled, with Khan Sheikhoun, Saraqib, and Maarat al-Numan most heavily targeted.
“After announcing the de-escalation zone in September 2018, the zone has been subject to several military campaigns,” he told The New Arab.
“The previous campaigns saw 70,000 people displaced. From 2 February when the last shelling started, tens of casualties have been reported, hundreds injured, and thousands displaced. Several civic and humanitarian organisations have had to suspend operations in targeted areas.”
He said that in addition to 101 people being killed in the recent regime barrages, including 13 children, more than 358 people have been injured, up to 8 March with the figures not including those hurt in the recent Russian air strikes.
“Education has stopped, health services are at a minimum and only a few field hospitals are operating and it is hard for aid to be distributed aid as the humanitarian situation is disastrous, especially under continuous shelling,” Malek said from Idlib, where he said 500,000 live in the de-escalation zone.
“NGOs can’t work without the minimum security requirements.”
Idlib has already been badly affected by aid cuts, following the takeover of the opposition province’s administration by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-linked Salvation Government, due to the armed group’s former links to al-Qaeda.
Humanitarian and civil society groups – including the Free Idlib Police – have been forced to suspend their work or fold in the face of the HTS takeover, following cuts by western governments and charities, due to the jihadi group’s administration now ruling over large parts of Idlib.
Others have told The New Arab that funding for Syria operations has been diverted to Turkey, which is hosting millions of Syrian refugees.
Kanawati said starved of jobs and money, civilians in Idlib could eventually be forced to use HTS services.
“This will help increase HTS control in Idlib if donors continue to halt funding. A lot of NGOs and aid groups have been forced to suspend their operations after funding was cut and of course this will help HTS fill the gap,” she added.
“The people of Aleppo and Idlib deserve a proper life. HTS is not something they believe in and they have continued to resist them.”
An agreement on Friday between Turkey and Russia for joint patrols inside and outside Idlib could put pressure on the regime to halt their shelling.
Ankara has sought to use its influence with Moscow to reduce tensions in northern Syria’s Idlib, said Ömer Özkizilcik, analyst at the Security Department of SETA Foundation in Ankara.
“Turkey is using its cooperation with Russia not only for its own national interest but also for the interest of Syrians. Turkey has long pressured Russia to halt the regime shelling, and the current patrols are the result of Turkish pressure,” Özkizilcik explains.
|Turkey has evolved to become the only actor who is actively using its military power to protect civilians.|
“Syria’s regime believes that the shelling as [preceeding a] possible military operation towards Idlib in the future. A ceasefire in the eyes of the regime means an end to its ‘every inch’ policy only using military means [to capture the whole of Syria].”
Özkizilcik believes the Turkish and Russian independent patrols will eventually reduce regime shelling with Ankara, which is the only international power, he says, seeking to reduce the suffering of the people of Idlib.
“Turkey has shown its decisiveness to hinder a possible military assault on Idlib and to ensure relative calm in the region… Turkey has evolved to become the only actor who is actively using its military power to protect civilians. Without the Turkish role, Idlib would be a new humanitarian disaster infront of the eyes of the entire world.”
Isam Khatib, executive director at Kesh Malek, which also works in Idlib, portrayed a similarly bleak picture about the situation, and warned that a new regime invasion of opposition areas would lead to disaster.
“Turkey’s deal with Russia will put pressure on the regime, but this will not stop the attacks,” he said.
“A large offensive against Idlib will mean a complete failure of the Sochi agreement (between Ankara and Moscow), which both guarantors are proud of, and enabled them to withdraw from the (UN-backed) Geneva platform, which failed to have any impact on the violence in Syria. An offensive would mean hundreds of thousands of Syrians gathering on the Turkish border to enter the country, something Ankara will never accept.”