Syrians in the north-eastern province of Idlib are bracing for an imminent offensive by the Assad regime, an attack that could see a new front opened up in the eight-year conflict.
Local councils in the south of the province have requested increased Turkish protection around towns and villages, as the regime announced that it would open several crossings, including Abu Al-Duhour in the east, for civilians to evacuate the area.
The Head of UN Humanitarian Task Force in Syria Jan Egeland warned earlier this month that an attack on the last major opposition stronghold could result in a "civilian bloodbath"; the province is now home to some three million with at least half of the population made up of Syrians displaced from elsewhere in the country.
In recent weeks, government forces have begun amassing near Jisr Al-Shughour, a town on Idlib's western edge, with air strikes sweeping the region leaving dozens dead. On Friday, over 40 people, mostly women and children, were killed in the village of Urem Kubra during half an hour of intense bombing. Last week, the Syrian air force also dropped leaflets over various towns urging residents to surrender to the regime as the war was nearing its end.
Previous regime assaults on opposition-held territory have concluded with negotiations allowing fighters and their families to journey to the north, in return for surrender of regional control and heavy weaponry. Yet analysts now fear that a new assault on Idlib would present the opposition with no exit, forcing them to surrender to the regime or face an extended military campaign.
However, Turkish intervention could put a stop to the violence. Ankara has been backing several opposition groups in the north as a buffer against Kurdish militias on its border and has built 12 observation posts around the city, vowing to prevent a military incursion. Although previous assaults on recognised de-escalation zones have been largely ignored by Turkey, the government, fearing another wave of refugees fleeing across the border, is expected to try to mitigate a wide-scale attack.
However, the success of such efforts is in doubt, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterating at a joint press conference last week that Moscow would support operations of the Syrian army in Idlib, and the de-escalation agreements in place were void due to the presence of alleged terror groups on the ground.
"Yes, Turkey's monitoring posts helped to ease the tension, but recently they [opposition groups] are attacking the Syrian army and also Russia's Hmeimim military air base. The Syrian army has the right to defend itself against those attacks, and we have to support their operations," Lavrov told reporters.
Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu advocated for cooperation to avoid bloodshed in the region: "Our intelligence agencies [and] armies should cooperate to locate and diffuse the terror groups in Idlib," he said. "To bomb all the city only because of terror groups would lead to a massacre and large-scale crisis."
Intensified opposition infighting is also expected to impact further developments, in light of the formation of a new coalition known as the National Liberation Front alliance. Made up of some 11 major factions, included Turkish backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, it excludes former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam (HTS), which controls about 60 per cent of the province.