The Syrian army, aided by Russian warplanes, attacked rebel-held towns in northwestern Syria on Wednesday in the most extensive bombardment in weeks against the last remaining rebel bastion in the country, rebels, rescuers and residents said, ONA reports quoting Reuters.
Rebels who have fought to topple President Bashar al-Assad for eight years are now largely confined to the enclave in the northwest near the Turkish border. Around four million people now live there, including hundreds of thousands of opponents of Assad who fled there from other parts of the country.
The enclave is protected by a “de-escalation zone” agreement brokered last year by Assad’s main international backers Russia and Iran, and Turkey which has supported the rebels in the past and has sent troops to monitor the truce.
Residents said at least 12 aerial raids had hit Idlib city, including a civilian prison on its outskirts, where they said dozens of prisoners escaped. At least four civilians were killed.
Russia’s defense ministry confirmed it had hit Idlib in coordination with Turkey, targeting drones and weapons stores of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadists it said were intended for use in an attack on a major Russian air base near the Mediterranean coast.
The Syrian army has escalated its shelling of the enclave since early February. The attacks have killed dozens of civilians and injured hundreds, and led to tens of thousands of people fleeing frontline areas to camps and towns closer to the Turkish border, rescuers and aid agencies said.
The Syrian army denies targeting civilians and says the army is responding to stepped-up attacks staged by al Qaeda-inspired fighters who aim to wreck the truce and control the area.
Residents along the border area with Turkey could hear heavy overnight aerial strikes that covered a wide stretch of territory from rebel-held areas near government-held Latakia province on the Mediterranean to Idlib city toward the east and extending to adjoining opposition-held parts of northern Hama.
“They burnt the land... The sounds were heard very clearly,” said Ibrahim al Sheikh, a father of five in the border town of Atmeh. He quoted relatives as saying the shelling was the heaviest yet in the two weeks of escalation.
The escalation in the northwest is taking place as a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led militia has launched a separate assault on the final bastion of Islamic State fighters on the opposite, eastern end of the country, creating turning points on both major fronts of Syria’s multi-sided civil war.