Amman: Russian and Syrian forces intensified air strikes and shelling in northwestern Syria overnight in the heaviest assault on the last rebel-held area since it was declared a demilitarised zone under a Russian-Turkish deal, sources said on Thursday.
The targeted villages and towns in northern Hama and southern Idlib fall within a buffer zone agreed last September between Russia and Turkey as part of a deal which averted a major offensive on the area.
Earlier this week Washington warned violence in the buffer zone “will result in the destabilization of the region”.
Since Tuesday the Russian and Syrian military attacks have forced thousands of civilians to flee to camps further north along the Turkish border and damaged four medical facilities, according to Idlib civil defence officials and a US medical aid organisation working in the area.
“Medical facilities are being evacuated, leaving the most vulnerable with no access to medical care. We are on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe,” Khaula Sawah, vice president of the US-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations -USA (UOSSM US) said in a statement on Wednesday.
Syrian army helicopters have dropped barrel bombs, which are drums or cylinders packed with explosives and shrapnel that cause indiscriminate destruction, killing at least 15 civilians and injured dozens, rescuers in Idlib province said.
Opposition-run civil defence agencies say hundreds of people, mostly civilians, have been killed by Russian and Syrian strikes since the September deal which prevented a potentially devastating offensive on Idlib and nearby areas controlled by rebels and now home to over 3 million people.
Syrian state media, quoting army sources, blamed rebels for the attacks and said it had targeted “terrorist groups” in towns in northern Hama including Kfr Nabouda. It also said Al Qaida-inspired groups have stepped up drone attacks on Russia’s main air base near the Syrian Mediterranean coast, but that these have been unsuccessful.
Idlib is held by an array of rebel groups. The most powerful is Tahrir Al Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the former Al Nusra Front — an Al Qaida affiliate until 2016.
Turkey, which has supported the rebels and has troops to monitor the truce, has been negotiating with Moscow to halt the strikes with little success.
The main Turkey-backed rebel grouping said they were rushing extra fighters to the main fronts to face all “possibilities”.
In response to the escalation, rebels said they mounted several rocket attacks on army positions including the Breideej army base in northern Hama, injuring and killing at least four Russian soldiers in a mortar attack that hit their vehicle.
“We have stepped up our readiness and sent troop reinforcements to confront any attack the regime and the Russians on any area,” Naji Al Mustafa, spokesman for the National Liberation Front coalition of rebel groups told Reuters.
“We cannot leave matters like this.. we are preparing for any possibility..” he added.
A military defector told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the latest campaign could signal a ground offensive aimed at taking control of territory in northern rural Hama province and southern Idlib countryside.