At least 17 people have been killed as a result of heavy shelling on the northern Syrian provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Hama overnight, ahead of a meeting next week aimed at addressing the Syrian regime's campaign against the last opposition bastion.
Some seven children are believed to have been killed in bombing campaigns across the towns of Maraat Al-Numaan, Morek, Saraqeb and the surrounding countryside, injuring at least 21. Some of the heaviest shelling has also hit the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the site of a deadly chemical attack in 2017 which killed over 80 people. The town has become a ghost city with most of its more than 70,000 residents fleeing, said Yousef Al-Idlibi, a former occupant who moved to Idlib city.
The White Helmets civil defence group have been working across the opposition held territory, transporting the wounded to hospital and rescuing civilians trapped by the debris of their ruined homes.
Five young souls were struck down in attacks by the Regime and ripped from their parents lives. We have pictures of only two children at present, but we remember all five, innocent and once full of life.#Syria#Hama#Idlib#Aleppopic.twitter.com/11EKJPCc6o
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 4, 2019
Air strikes have been steadily increasing on the last opposition stronghold in recent weeks, but the latest campaign comes ahead of a scheduled meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The two statesmen are set to discuss the latest regional developments in the north, as well as broader bilateral relations, in their third meeting in as many months.
The escalating violence has called into question the longevity of the Sochi ceasefire agreement, credited with preventing a full-scale offensive in the northern province, home to some 3.5 million people, a third of whom are children. Signed by Turkey, Russia and Iran, it stipulated the creation of a 15 kilometre deep buffer zone around the Idlib region and nearby Hama and Aleppo, in return for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry by the opposition.
However regime violations have been frequent; some 300 people, including 108 civilians have been killed in clashes since the agreement, the result of over 5,000 strikes. Although Turkish patrols resumed in numerous air strike sites last year, recent bombing has continued largely unabated.
Ankara has condemned what it said were increasing provocations to wreck the truce and warned that a bombing campaign by the Russians and the Syrian army would cause a major humanitarian crisis, but many residents are exasperated by the failure of Turkish forces to respond to the bombardments.
However, Turkey has been largely preoccupied with the presence of Kurdish-militia groups east of the Euphrates, with plans to launch an offensive, with the support of Syrian-allied opposition groups on the ground, still under consideration.
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.