Russian and Syrian forces stepped up their air strikes and shelling on north-western Syria yesterday night, in the most intense assault on the last opposition stronghold in recent months.
The towns and areas which are being targeted are those around northern Hama and southern Idlib, which both fall under the demilitarised safe zone agreed upon by Russia and Turkey in September last year, and which was setup with the intention of housing civilians and displaced Syrians in order to shelter them from the ongoing conflict.
The breaching of the terms of this intended buffer zone by the Syrian and Russian militaries, “will result in the destabilisation of the region”, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. The attacks, which started on Tuesday, have forced thousands of civilians to flee to other camps further north towards the Turkish border and have caused severe damage to four medical facilities.
Khaula Sawah, vice president of the US-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), stated yesterday that “medical facilities are being evacuated, leaving the most vulnerable with no access to medical care. We are on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe.”
The assault comes days after Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that his country’s forces, along with those of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, were not planning any assault on the province in the near future. This sudden move has consequently caused Turkish-backed opposition groups such as the National Liberation Front (NFL) to mobilise in the attempt to prevent the assault.
Since February, hundreds of civilians have been killed in Idlib due to military attacks and clashes, which have resulted in the exodus of over 120,000 residents to camps along the Turkish border. The province, a strategic area covering prominent cities and straddling major highways, has been eyed up by Russian-backed Syrian forces for the past year as the Assad regime gained ever more ground in the conflict, and in recent months has aimed for a full-on assault of the province in order to drive out the competing opposition groups controlling the area.