The Syrian government has increased pressure on the rebels’ last-remaining strongholds with deadly air strikes and bombings, as it looks to reclaim every inch of the country.
Syrian and allied Russian aircraft pounded targets in the northwestern region of Idlib on Sunday and Monday, pressing an offensive targeting the only province outside of regime control.
Air strikes left at least 21 dead, including eight children and 11 members of the same family west of the town of Sinjar, according to monitors. Meanwhile, an explosion near an Islamist rebel group base on Sunday night killed 34 people, including 19 civilians.
The Syrian army lost Idlib, which borders Turkey, to insurgents when the provincial capital fell in 2015.
Idlib has seen fierce clashes in recent weeks, as the army pushed to seize a pivotal road between Damascus and the city of Aleppo.
The province is part of a so-called de-escalation zone agreement struck last year by President Bashar al-Assad’s sponsors, Russia and Iran, and opposition ally Turkey. However, the regime has failed to abide by the deal and has targeted all but one of the four areas covered.
At the same time, the regime has stepped up its bombing campaign on the besieged Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.
Shelling and bombardment of the enclave, where the humanitarian conditions have sharply deteriorated, has claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians in recent weeks.
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The latest casualties came on Monday when air strikes killed a child and two other civilians in Madira, a village in Eastern Ghouta, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
At the height of the fighting, in 2015, the Syrian government controlled less than a sixth of the country. Since offensives in the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Deir Ezzor in the east, they have regained control more than half of Syrian territory.
Assad has repeatedly vowed to retake “every inch” of the country, including Raqqa and other areas taken from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) by US-backed forces.
“The regime is doing now what it did in Aleppo,” Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a teacher from Aleppo who was displaced to Idlib, told the Telegraph. “The bombing is unbelievable in the south. We are seeing the worst days for the revolution now.”
Pictures shared by Syrian activists showed a family who had fled fighting in their village in the south of Idlib hiding in a hole in the ground in an attempt to escape circling warplanes.
Fighting has driven tens of thousands of residents of the Aleppo and Idlib countryside to areas further north and to the closed Turkish border.
According to aid agencies, more than 80,000 have arrived in camps in the last two weeks. While Turkish security forces caught a record number of nearly 10,000 attempting to cross the frontier in the last 10 days of December.
"If the strikes on civilian centres continue, there is the possibility of an additional 400,000 civilians trying to make their way to the Turkish border,” said Selim Tosun, from the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation. “This area is already saturated with people and is currently housing roughly one million people.”
The city is largely under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which consists of mostly fighters from a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Schools, hospitals and government institutes in the province are run by a patchwork of different rebel groups, including HTS.
Idlib has become something of a holding pen for rebels from all over the country. Opposition fighters and activists from Aleppo and other formerly rebel-held areas were sent to the province under so-called reconciliation deals when their strongholds fell.
The fight for Idlib could prove to be the toughest and mostly costly fight yet in the Syrian war. WIth over two million people now living in the province, the population is much larger than east Aleppo at the start of the Syrian regime’s offensive there.
It will likely see a grinding fight, with high numbers of civilian casualties, due to how densely populated the urban centre is.