Members of the Syrian Civil Defense dig out wounded from underneath rubble in Hobait, a city near Idlib. Source: The Syrian Civil Defense
On the eve of Ramadan in northwest Syria, barrel bombs fell from the sky, killing and wounding dozens of civilians as Syrian airplanes once again intensified their bombing campaign on the opposition enclave in Idlib. Sunday marked the sixth continuous day of what is being called the “most aggressive” air campaign in the area yet.
The airstrikes have killed 35 and injured another 89 injured since the the latest campaign began at the end of April according to Ahmad Sheykho, media director of the Syrian Civil Defense. Among the dead are 12 children and one Civil Defense worker.
“There have been more than 900 instances of artillery shelling, barrel bombs, and missile strikes since the beginning of this latest campaign,” Sheykho told Syria direct.
This latest military escalation directly followed the conclusion of the 12th round of Astana talks, where attending powers pledged to undertake a “political operation in Idlib in order to reduce Hay’at Tahreer Al-Sham’s (HTS) control over Idlib.” The operation is being led by Russian and Syrian government forces.
HTS is a radical Islamic group who controls much of Idlib. Composed of a hodge-podge of different Islamic oppositional groups, HTS has been the focus of regime military efforts since last September.
Two Turkish soldiers were also wounded in the attacks on Saturday as regime forces shelled a site near their observation outpost in Idlib. The Turkish foreign minister accused the Syrian forces of purposefully targeting the outpost.
The National Liberation Front, an opposition group separate from HTS also active in northwest Syria, announced a retaliatory campaign against Syrian forces in Wester Hama Sunday May 5th.
In Response, the regime accused oppositional forces of attacking both civilian and government military positions in Hama and Latika.
Ibrahim Shamally, an employee in the Idlib municipal health office, was among those fleeing the bombings on Saturday. He and his family sought shelter by the Turkish border, an area under opposition control.
Shamally told Syria Direct that it was a “miracle” he and his family were able to escape. They had to wait until the skies were clear of jets before they could make their escape.
“We knew they were targeting moving lights during the night, so we escaped during the day,” Shamally said. “To put it briefly, what’s happening to Idlib is a disaster… a true disaster.”
Families take shelter in farmland after fleeing bombings in Idlib. Source: Idlib Media Center, 3rd of May
Muhamad Al-Kady also fled the bombardment on Saturday, seeking shelter in a neighboring city, Salqin. The 32-year-old made the 70-kilometer journey from his home in Jebel A-Zawiya on foot.
“We would walk until we heard the planes,” Kady told Syria Direct. “When we heard planes above us, we had to stop walking. We would only start again once they left.”
Kady and Shamally were not alone in their journey to safety. Families seeking shelter under trees and in neighboring farmland has become a familiar sight as the military campaign intensifies and the number of IDP’s grow.
“About 43 thousand families have fled the bombings in Idlib between the 29th of April and the 4th of May,” said Muhamad Halaj, chief of Response Coordinators, a local observatory and aid organization.
Neighboring cities have been trying their best to help accommodate the displaced Idlib residents but have had trouble coping with the sheer number of refugees.
In order accommodate all the refugee’s needs, Response Coordinators started a campaign entitled “Be Helpful.” The campaign stresses generosity and encourages local residents to help the refugees to the best of their abilities.
“The number of displaced people keeps growing and so far, the humanitarian response has been weak.” Halaj, told Syria Direct. “This campaign is sorely needed to help accommodate all the displaced people’s needs.”
However, given the scale of the massive influx of IDP’s in northwest Syria, it seems likely that more than generosity is needed.
According to the UN, up to 323 thousand Syrians have been forcibly displaced in response to bombings in Northwest Syria since September’s Sochi Safe Zone deal fell apart.
The Failed Russian-Turkey Deal
Last September, Putin and Erdogan met in Sochi, Russia at the 11th hour to try to come to an agreement on Idlib. The two leaders emerged from the meeting with a deal.
By the end of the following month, a buffer zone in Idlib was to be created. Civilians could take refuge in a safe zone between opposition and government forces.
However, the safe zone was conditional on Turkey confiscating heavy weaponry from oppositional groups in the area. In addition, local Islamist forces like Al-Nursra Front, were to be expelled from Idlib.
In the end Turkey was unable to expel Islamist groups, and the deal did not hold. As a result the buffer zone was never created.
“Part of a bigger plan”
Ömer Özkizilcik, an analyst for the Ankara-based group, SETA, told Syria Direct that the current military escalation is part of a larger strategy the Syrian Government is employing to limit Russia-Turkey cooperation.
“The regime is systematically bombing Idlib in order to not de-escalate and to prevent a ceasefire, as they wish to capture all of Idlib, in line with their ‘every-inch’ policy,” Özkizilcik told Syria Direct.
“The Assad government believes that if there is a real ceasefire agreement in Idlib, they will lose the opportunity to launch a major military operation.”
Morgan Ortagus, the U.S. State Department spokesman, expressed concern about the current military escalation in Idlib.
“The United States is alarmed by the escalation of violence in Idlib and Northern Hama, Syria, including the ongoing Russian and regime airstrikes (…) The violence must end,” Ortagus said in a tweet on April 30th.
Sam Heller, a researcher with the Crisis Group, told Syria Direct that “America has warned against any attacks on Idlib again and again, but still has not had a concrete reaction to the ongoing attacks.”
Heller added, “The fate of Idlib lies mostly on Russia-Turkey bilateral relations. There has to be understanding between the two before America or any other country can enter the conflict.”
In the meantime, there seems to be little hint of the bombings’ end.