Air raids have pounded areas in Syria’s last rebel-held province of Idlib, killing several civilians and raising further concerns that an all-out government offensive is only a matter of time.
The strikes on Tuesday came as the United Nations urged Russia, a Syrian government ally, and Turkey, which backs certain rebel groups in Idlib, to help avert a “bloodbath”.
A full-scale military offensive would be devastating for the nearly three million people living in the province, including many rebels and civilians who were bussed out of other areas as they came back under government control.
At least 24 raids – the first in three weeks – hit the area on Tuesday morning, Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker reported from Antakya, in neighbouring Turkey, citing activists who said “they saw Russian and Syrian regime warplanes in the sky”.
The bombing mainly targeted the city of Jisr al-Shughour on Idlib’s western edge, along with its surrounding towns and villages, activists told Al Jazeera.
The attacks lasted for several hours before subsiding at around 7pm local time (17:00 GMT).
At least 10 civilians were killed in the air raids and 20 others were wounded, according to Ahmed Yarji from the White Helmets, a group of rescue workers operating in rebel-held territories.
Other sources put the death toll to at least 17.
Yarji said five children, all members of the same family and aged between five and 11, were among those killed.
“Civilian homes were the only buildings being targeted,” the 33-year-old said.
“Medics were able to respond but it was incredibly challenging, especially since the main roads used by ambulances were also bombed,” Yarji added.
According to Yarji, a double-tap air raid targeted members of the White Helmets as they reached a site hit in an earlier attack.
“Residents of the area are scared to sleep inside their homes today, and many have opted to sleep in the wilderness, fearing another wave of air strikes,” he said.
Activists also said the latest attacks prompted dozens to flee towards Aleppo on the easten side of Idlib, or towards Turkey, which has sealed off its border with Syria since last year, allowing only for the flow of humanitarian goods.
Shortly before Tuesday’s raids, the Kremlin called Idlib a “pocket of terrorism” and said the presence of rebel groups there undermines the possibility of a political settlement to Syria’s seven-year war.
“We know that Syria’s armed forces are preparing to resolve this problem,” Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesperson, without commenting on a timeframe for the expected operation.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has sworn to recapture “every inch” of Syria and has made big gains against rebels since Russia joined his war effort three years ago.
His forces have been amassing around Idlib, presumably in preparation for the assault to seize the last major bastion of the rebel groups who have been trying to oust Assad since the start of the war in 2011.
Turkey, whose army controls a string of military posts around Idlib, has for weeks been engaged in diplomatic efforts to prevent a Syrian government attack on Idlib. Turkey, Russia and Iran, which is also a major Assad ally, are expected to hold a summit on Syria in Tehran on Friday.
In Geneva, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on Tuesday called on the leaders of Russia and Turkey to draw up a solution in the coming days to prevent a major battle for Idlib.
“A telephone call between the two of you would make a big difference,” de Mistura said, addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan directly in a media briefing.
Moscow and Ankara should be given more time to negotiate a way to prevent an offensive, he added.
De Mistura, who has mediated several rounds of Syria talks in recent years, without making any progress, said he was “determined” to hold discussions with high-level envoys from Turkey, Iran and Russia on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, despite concerns the offensive may begin before then.
The UN has previously warned that an all-out assault on Idlib could spark a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale not yet seen in Syria’s conflict.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump late on Monday warned Syria against “recklessly” attacking Idlib, which he said could trigger a “human tragedy”.
Asked about Trump’s tweet, Peskov said on Tuesday such warnings do not consider “the dangerous and negative potential” of the rebel-held enclave, and show the White House does not have a “comprehensive approach” to solving the Syria crisis.
Meanwhile, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said his government is making efforts to remove rebel fighters from Idlib with the least human cost.
“The situation in Idlib is sensitive,” Zarif told Iranian state TV on Tuesday. “Our efforts are for … the exit of terrorists from Idlib to be carried out with the least human cost.”
Also on Tuesday, Israeli planes targeted military positions in the provinces of Tartous and Hama, Syrian state news agency SANA reported, citing a military source.
Syrian air defences confronted and downed some of the rockets, SANA said.
An Israeli military spokesperson declined to comment, Reuters News Agency said.
The Israeli military has in the past carried out attacks on Iranian and Iran-affiliated targets in neighbouring Syria. It has warned of a growing Iranian military presence in Syria, which it sees as a threat to its safety.