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Thousands flee south Idlib as Syria regime bombs buffer zone

An estimated 2.9 million people live in the northern region of Idlib, half of them already displaced from other areas in Syria as opposition supporters fled there from other areas captured by government forces.
An estimated 2.9 million people live in the northern region of Idlib, half of them already displaced from other areas in Syria as opposition supporters fled there from other areas captured by government forces.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the south of Idlib and neighboring Hama as the Syrian regime continues its bombing campaign of the opposition stronghold.

President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces have repeatedly shelled the towns of Jarjanaz, Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib and Morek, Al-Jissat and Al-Tamanah  in Hama over the past two weeks, causing numerous civilian causalities and destroying homes and property.

A life of displacement is worse than death

one 52-year-old man who fled with his wife and children told reporters. “My family has been in a state of psychological collapse ever since we made the decision to flee our house.”

This week, the Syrian coalition released a statement condemning the bombing as a violation of the conditions of the Sochi agreement reached by opposition-backer Turkey and Syria-ally Russia in September.

“The Coalition reaffirms that the implementation of the agreement is the duty of all parties concerned if a human catastrophe is to be averted,” the opposition statement read.

At least 18 civilians have been killed and 51 others wounded in bombardments since 30 November, according to local activists.

Last week, the UN voiced alarm over the renewed Russian air raids, warning the strikes risk setting off “a gigantic power keg”.

“We are very worried for recent developments,” Jan Egeland, the head of the UN Humanitarian Taskforce for Syria, told reporters. “It is really playing with a gigantic powder keg in the middle of three million civilians.”

Read: 231 civilians killed in Syria last month: NGO

The Sochi deal was credited with preventing a full-scale offensive in the northern province, home to some three million people. It stipulated the creation of a 15 kilometre deep buffer zone around the Idlib region and nearby Hama and Aleppo, with the withdrawal of heavy weaponry by the opposition.

Whilst many have questioned the longevity of the deal in light of the violations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed on Sunday that Russia and Turkey do not have a “serious problem” in regards to Idlib.

“Turkey has so far pulled its weight in Idlib with its security forces and soldiers. There are only problems with HTS,” Erdogan told a group of journalists, referencing opposition group Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam which controls most of the province. “Due to this, they [Russia] have voiced some uneasiness. Our relevant units are in constant contact with each other.”

The Assad regime has previously stated that in the view of the Syrian government the ceasefire deal is a “temporary one”, and that the government’s objective to control all of Syria remains the same. Such rhetoric has prompted concern amongst opposition groups in Idlib about the gradual erosion of the deal, with the regime preparing to retake the north from a position of strength.

The UN and aid organisations have repeatedly warned that a fully-fledged offensive on Idlib could spark the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the country’s civil war so far.

Read: US prosecutor: Evidence of Syria regime war crimes strongest since Nuremberg trials

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