Russian and Syrian jets resumed intensive strikes in Idlib and Hama on Sunday, residents and rescuers said, as Damascus stepped up its assault on the rebels’ last major stronghold after a Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit failed to agree a ceasefire.
They said Syrian army helicopters dropped barrel bombs — typically filled with high explosives and shrapnel — on al-Habeet and Abdin villages in southern Idlib and a string of other hamlets and villages in the area.
The Syrian army denies using barrel bombs. However, United Nations investigators have extensively documented their use by the army.
Russian jets were believed to have hit the nearby towns of Latamneh and Kafr Zeita in northern Hama in a succession of raids, an organisation which monitors air strikes in Syria and a rebel source said.
Damascus, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has been preparing a major assault to recover Idlib and adjacent areas of the northwest. The province is Syria’s last major stronghold of active opposition to the rule of president Bashar al-Assad.
Russian and Syrian warplanes have resumed their bombing campaign a day after a summit of the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia on Friday failed to agree on a ceasefire that would forestall the offensive.
Turkey and Western powers have warned of a bloodbath if a major Russian-backed bombing campaign is launched in the heavily populated northwestern province that borders Turkey.
The United Nations also said it feared a full-scale offensive could cause a humanitarian catastrophe involving tens of thousands of civilians.
So far the aerial strikes have not hit a major city in the province where over three million civilians, many displaced from other areas, have found refuge in the course of the conflict.
Russia says it avoids civilians and only targets radical al-Qaeda-inspired groups but opposition sources and residents say most of the casualties in the last few days were civilians.
The opposition accuse Russia and its allies of striking at hospitals and civil defence centres to force rebels to surrender in a repeat of earlier, large-scale military offensives.
A US-based medical charity that operates in the provinces said three hospitals and two civil defence centres were bombed in the last two days, ‘leaving thousands with no access to medical care’.
‘It is distressing to see a rise in attacks on medical facilities...There are over three million civilians in this crowded area of Syria who are in a life-threatening situation,’ Ghanem Tayara, head of Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) said in a statement.
Regime, Russian air raids resume on Syria’s Idlib
Agence France-Presse . Beirut
Regime and Russian air raids pounded Syria’s last major rebel bastion of Idlib on Sunday after an overnight lull, killing at least one child, a monitor said.
It was the second day of bombardment on the jihadist and rebel-held province and adjacent areas, after key powerbrokers in Tehran failed to reach a deal to avert a government assault.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said heavy attacks resumed on the northwestern region near the Turkish border around midday Sunday.
‘Regime helicopters dropped more than 60 barrel bombs on the village of Hobait in Idlib’s southern countryside, killing at least one young girl’ and wounding six other people, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
In the neighbouring province of Hama, Russian jets carried out more than ten strikes on rebel positions in the village of Al-Latamneh, he said.
The raids wounded five rebels and knocked the village’s underground hospital out of action, just a day after strikes damaged a similar health facility in Idlib’s southern town of Hass.
Some of the heaviest bombardment in weeks hit Idlib and nearby areas on Saturday, killing at least nine civilians before coming to a halt by the evening, the Observatory said.
More than half of Idlib is held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate, while most of the rest is held by rival rebels. The regime controls a southeastern chunk.
HTS and rebels are also present in adjacent areas of the neighbouring provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia.
Hundreds of families have fled Idlib’s southeastern areas since Saturday, when Russian and regime strikes on the region were the most violent in a month, the Observatory said.
Idlib’s health chief Munzer Al-Khalil said Saturday he feared ‘the most catastrophic crisis’ in Syria’s seven-year war.
He said he had travelled to Geneva to urge diplomats and UN officials to help prevent a ‘catastrophe’.
The United Nations has warned that any military campaign in Idlib could push up to 800,000 people to flee their homes.
The leaders of regime allies Russia and Iran met with the president of rebel backer Turkey in Tehran on Friday, but failed to reach an agreement to avoid a military assault.
The rebel-held region of Idlib and adjacent areas are home to almost three million people, half of whom have been displaced from other areas in the country, according to the UN.
Regime troops have for weeks been massing around Idlib, after president Bashar al-Assad’s regime retook control of other areas of the country earlier this year.
More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s civil war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-Assad protests.