Civilians pay the price as Syrian-Russian forces pound Idlib

Villages endure government-led attacks in rebel-held Idlib as military offensive in northwest continues.

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    A wounded man sits in the rubble after an air attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, in February [File: Reuters]
    A wounded man sits in the rubble after an air attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, in February [File: Reuters]

    In the war in which hundreds of thousands have died, some Syrians made a miraculous escape and survived. Two-year-old Khadija is one of them.

    On Thursday at 3am, she was asleep next to her parents, just like every other night, when a missile hit their home adjacent to their poultry farm in Kansafrah village in the countryside of northwest Idlib province. The explosion killed both her parents and her siblings.

    Local rescue workers from the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, rushed to the house when they heard the blast and found Khadija coated in dust with her face covered in blood.

    "As we got to the site we heard a baby's voice," said Osama Haj Hussain, a White Helmet rescuer.

    "We found a baby girl. Her body was not hurt but the face was bleeding. I took her to the ambulance."

    The next morning, Hasan Mohammad Hamdan, Khadija's paternal uncle, was called to the hospital to take her under his guardianship.

    "She used to talk and call me uncle, she loved to play and jump all the time, but now she doesn't speak a word," he told Al Jazeera. "She cries and shakes every time she hears the sound of planes in the sky."

    Increased shelling

    Khadija's village was one of the many that came under a ferocious attack that night.

    The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its Russian allies have been bombing the province for several weeks but last Thursday the shelling intensified, according to observers.

    According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, at least 69 civilians have been killed in the recent artillery fire and air attacks.

    Sporadic attacks have continued all year in Idlib despite Russia and Turkey's agreement to continue a ceasefire between rebels that control Idlib and government forces, which was signed in September last year in Sochi.

    A charity that supports doctors in rebel-held areas, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, UOSSM, warned of an "apocalypse in Syria" if the attacks were allowed to continue. It said more than 150,000 Syrians in Idlib had been displaced in the past week.

    Dr Hussam al-Fakir, chairman of UOSSM International, said the United Nations must take proactive steps to de-escalate the situation in Idlib.

    "Right now, hundreds of thousands of people are being pushed into smaller and smaller areas and will inevitably be slaughtered," he said.

    "We know how this story plays out - the bombing of schools and hospitals, indiscriminate barrel-bomb attacks, chemical weapon attacks, and scores of children brutally disfigured and killed."

    'Very worried'

    According to the Observatory, Syrian forces dropped 13 barrel bombs while the Russians carried out 33 air attacks in the de-escalation zone.

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    Idlib became the last stop for the rebels, their families, and other anti-Assad activists and civilians, after Russia mediated several "reconciliation" deals elsewhere as the government recaptured most of the country.

    Most of those who took refuge in Idlib have nowhere else to go.

    Abdul Hamza, a father of two girls, moved to Idlib city from Aleppo in 2016. He said the fear of a full-fledged offensive was again looming over the province.

    "I am very worried," he said. "The regime will attack us in a few days, I think."

    Hamza said to mitigate the effect of shelling he plans on tucking his girls in a corner in the lavatory when the attacks begin. If it gets worse, he said, he will pay smugglers to bring his family to Turkey.

    However, Hamza said he feels betrayed by Turkey and raged at what he called its reluctance to protect Idlib.

    "Turkey is making deals with Russia over our dead bodies. They are silent while the regime and Russia are killing us," he said.

    Turkey's strategy

    Turkey has supported a conglomeration of anti-Assad rebels throughout the eight-year Syrian war.

    Opposition activists fear as the war draws to a close, Ankara is more concerned about containing Kurdish militias on its borders that it sees as "terrorists" rather than confronting Russia or the Syrian government.

    Nicholas A Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said Turkey's inaction is strategic.

    "Turkey is calculating that the Russian and Assad campaign can actually play to its advantage by knocking the rebels down to size, and making them even more dependent on Turkey to prevent a ground invasion of Idlib," Heras told Al Jazeera.

    "Turkey has difficulties keeping the Syrian rebels in Idlib in line, and the spectre of a full-blown Assad regime and Russian military campaign on Idlib could achieve that."

    Idlib is largely under the control of former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group that has consistently refused to listen to Turkey and has taken over the province from the rebels backed by Ankara.

    Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Turkey had limited clout with both the Russians and the rebels, and could, therefore, do little even if it tried.

    "Turkey can't really stop Russia or the regime, it can delay," he said. "In doing so, Ankara is trying to negotiate the best deal on behalf of its patrons in Idlib, while also ensuring that its own interests are taken into account."

    Stein said Turkey's failure to contain HTS had given Russia and the Syrian government an excuse to bomb Idlib.

    "To date, Ankara has not been able to get the opposition to do everything it wants, particularly as it pertains to the Idlib agreement that required Ankara to create a buffer zone and to cede control of highways in Idlib to regime control," he said.

    "To date, this has not happened, so the regime is using this to its advantage to push for a piecemeal grab of territory."

    HTS dominance

    Under the Sochi agreement, Turkey was expected to eliminate HTS from the ground. While it succeeded in luring some of its members to join rebel factions it supports, the hard line armed group has maintained its military superiority and kept control of Idlib, including the strategic M4 and M5 highways.

    These highways link cities under government control to each other and Turkey and are crucial to Syria's economic recovery.

    Abdul Hamza said the Syrian government's real aim is to discourage civilians such as him through indiscriminate killings and to instil enough fear that the people give in and compromise with the Assad administration.

    "The regime is trying to scare us to give in to his rule and compromise with him," he said. "That is why it is destroying our hospitals and schools."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News