A man rides his motorcycle through Idlib in February. Photo by Omar Haj Kaddour/AFP.
AMMAN: Pro-government shelling ramped up dramatically across Syria’s rebel-held northwest on Wednesday, ahead of a high-level summit in the Russian city of Sochi where the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran are expected to discuss the future of Idlib province.
Bombardments struck about a dozen towns inside and along an internationally brokered buffer zone surrounding Idlib province, and have sent tens of thousands of newly displaced civilians fleeing destruction, local opposition officials told Syria Direct.
Waves of airstrikes and artillery barrages have been building in recent weeks across the embattled rebel enclave, which underwent a comprehensive ceasefire agreement in September.
However, local officials told Syria Direct on Thursday that ceasefire infractions are multiplying, and since late January, the escalating violence has displaced at least 85 percent of the civilian population from towns in and along the buffer zone—a ribbon of no man’s land separating pro-government forces from an array of rebel factions that currently control Idlib province.
In the past 48 hours alone, renewed shelling has killed at least two civilians and injured five, according to Hamid Qatimi, a volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defense group of first responders, often known as the White Helmets.
Qatimi added that around 50,000 civilians have fled their homes in northern Hama province over the past month and a half.
Since Tuesday, airstrikes have been reported in nearly a dozen towns and villages across Idlib province and neighboring northern Hama.
“The bombardment included rockets and artillery shells, and [targeted] residential neighborhoods and farms at random,” added Qatimi.
“We've noticed an increase in the frequency of bombardment as Sochi nears."
The buffer zone town of al-Tmaneh declared a state of emergency on Monday, issuing a desperate plea for assistance from local aid groups—echoing similar declarations by local officials and aid organizations within the buffer zone since last September.
Speaking from the bombed out town of a-Tah, about 10 kilometers from Latamna, local media activist Majid al-Yousef told Syria Direct that only a small number of families remained in the area.
“The shelling here is insane,” he says. “We ask the guarantors [of the ceasefire], especially Turkey, to stand firm against the violations committed by the regime's militias and their Russian and Iranian allies.”
Meanwhile on Thursday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani convened in the Russian city of Sochi, where the three leaders were set to discuss the fate of the northwest in the wake of recent territorial advances by hardline Islamist groups.
A Turkish presidential spokesperson said that the primary objective of the summit was to seek a “permanent solution” for the stabilization of Syria, leaving much of the specifics of Thursday’s agenda open to speculation.
Ahead of meetings with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts on Thursday, President Putin reportedly emphasized a need for “ensuring the definitive de-escalation in Idlib,” while calling for “concrete practical steps” regarding the presence of “terrorist” groups in Syria’s northwest.
Sochi was the city where Putin and Erdogan met last September to hash out the details of a comprehensive ceasefire agreement covering key parts of the rebel-held northwest. The deal established a 15- to 20-kilometer buffer zone along frontlines surrounding the opposition stronghold of Idlib province—widely credited with averting a bloody showdown between pro-government forces on one side and a range of opposition and hardline Islamist fighters on the other.
However, calculations on the ground have shifted dramatically since that agreement was concluded five months ago. Key deadlines have passed without compliance, the most critical being the disbanding of hardline Islamist factions in the region by October 15.
Rather than dissolve, the largest extremist group—Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)—has dramatically strengthened its position in the region, embarking on an aggressive campaign since early January against rival rebel groups from the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF).
After the collapse of NLF defenses throughout much of northern Hama province, a ceasefire agreement oversaw evacuations of Ankara-backed fighters to opposition-held areas of the northern Aleppo countryside, currently occupied by Turkish troops.
As the latest Sochi summit begins, HTS and its affiliated governance arm, the Syrian Salvation Government, now control approximately 80 percent of opposition territory in the northwest.
The ceasefire deal has been tested repeatedly in the past, and infractions have become more violent and commonplace in recent months.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the buffer zone town of Latamna issued declared a state of emergency last week. The town in question was al-Tmaneh, also located within the internationally brokered buffer zone surrounding Idlib province.