The Assad regime has stepped up deadly attacks in Idlib and Hama. There could be a catastrophe if the bombing intensifies as the regime attempts to take the last remaining rebel stronghold.

Displaced Syrians gather in a field near a camp for displaced people in the village of Atme, in the rebel-held northern Idlib province on May 8, 2019.
Displaced Syrians gather in a field near a camp for displaced people in the village of Atme, in the rebel-held northern Idlib province on May 8, 2019. (AFP)

“At 2:30 last night, I was laying reading the Quran, waiting for the suhoor to pray and then sleep. Then the area was hit by four explosive rockets, one of the explosive rockets hit the corner of my house,” a civilian from Nouman in Idlib, one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria, tells TRT World. 

“My house is partially destroyed and my car is heavily damaged. I rushed outside -- I was terrified with the sound of the explosion. I saw my neighbours were carrying their children to find a safe place,” says Ahmad, who requested his real name be kept secret.

On Monday, the first day of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, the Russians and Syrian regime launched one of the most intense attacks in their latest offensive in the South Idlib and north Hama, provinces in Syria. 

In the past, many Syrians fled to Idlib when the Syrian regime launched aerial attacks in their areas. But this time they have nowhere else to go, surrounded by regime-held areas and bordering Turkey, more than three million civilians have no other place to go.

Thirteen barrel bombs dropped by Moscow and the Syrian regime killed 12 people in Idlib on Monday, as they targeted hospitals and civilian areas, raising fears that it could be the final offensive for regime leader Bashar al Assad to capture the last remaining rebel area.

As a result of yesterday’s attacks, it now looks certain that the Syrian army has taken control of Kafr Nabouda, a village in northern Hama, Ahmad says. 

Civilians as bargain chips

“We're talking about almost four million stuck in a small area. It means, one bomb can possibly kill thousands,” the media manager of the White Helmets tells TRT World.  

As the most organised volunteer rescue group in Syria’s last rebel areas since 2014, he has been keeping count of airstrikes and casualties and organising an emergency response in the areas they expect violence. The group now anticipates that a ground operation is likely to begin soon. 

“It’s not officially happening yet but they are gathering weapons and heavy machinery and the regime soldiers took positions around the border of the rebel held areas,” the White Helmets officer says. 

Idlib and Hama remain part of the de-escalation zone that Turkey and Russia agreed last year in September in a bid to stop the violence. But the latest aerial campaign has killed at least 100 civilians since it began around 12 days ago, and pushed 200,000 people towards Syria’s border with Turkey. If attacks continue, it could lead to a massive humanitarian crisis at the border. 

The White Helmets rescue group tries to be ready for the worst case scenario, but is still hoping a solution is found to avoid a brutal final offensive which could lead a catastrophe.

“The bombing is used as a political gain, to push the terms of the agreements on the table to give more,” the White Helmets officer says. 

On May 8, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Moscow to meet with his counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss the region, particularly Idlib. Since 2015, the Syrian regime has been able to capture rebel-held areas thanks to Russian support. Turkey welcomed more than three million Syrian refugees after the war and has been holding talks with Russia to Moscow to find a political solution to the war. 

The regime’s effort to revive the bad economy 

Syrian rebels backed by Turkey say the Syrian regime and its ally Moscow aim to gain control of two major highways in the last rebel enclave in the northwest of the country, with the attacks targeting highly dense civilian areas in Idlib and Hama. By capturing the M5 and M4 highways between Aleppo, Hama and Latakia, the regime could revive Syria’s economy, hit by an oil crisis after sanctions.

“All roads are monitored by the regime air forces or missiles,” Dr Murad Elsheikh, Director of the free Hama Health Directorate, tells TRT World.

“But we’re trying to find a solution to evacuate the patients. Behind the front lines of those roads, we have an ambulance system in collaboration with the Syrian Civil Defence -- we’re working in an emergency system to re-distribute the ambulance system and reactivate some surgical units in Idlib,” Elsheikh says. 

In northern Hama, all the hospitals are now out of service because of the attacks. Three hospitals, two primary health services and three ambulances, as well as surgical units, were attacked a week ago, according to the Hama Health Directorate. Now it is trying to find a solution to evacuate the patients. At least 10 hospitals are out of service in Idlib and Hama. In Idlib, patients who were in the targeted facilities were evacuated to the remaining hospitals. 

But the health directorates in both Hama and Idlib fear that continuing attacks put the medical situation into a crisis, as the health facilities already lack medical staff and equipment. 

HTS and aid delivery

In January this year, the former Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Sham (HTS) captured several towns from the moderate rebel groups in Northern Syria, where the Assad regime is continuing its attacks. 

The group’s capture of new towns created fears that Russia and the Assad regime will ramp up its attacks on three million people with the excuse of fighting the group.

Facing protests by locals upon expanding its territories, the group struck a moderate tone, in an attempt to gain the hearts of the locals and international legitimacy.

However, international NGOs and funding agencies from countries such as Germany and France suspended development projects at the health directorates across the rebel-controlled areas due to HTS’s expansion. It is largely recognised as a terrorist group, including by Turkey, even after it’s break from Al Qaeda. Both the Idlib and Hama health directorates told TRT World that some NGOs later withdraw the decision and continued their humanitarian support.

An AFP report on Tuesday alleged that HTS was frustrating aid efforts in northwest Syria and was engaging in threats, arrests, or closures for ‘very silly reasons’ and several projects by international agencies have been dropped in recent months because of such meddling.

Sawfat Shaikhouni, Security and Safety Officer of the Idlib health directorate told TRT World: “A number of NGOs ceased their work due to the cease of fund by donors and the shifts of HTS’ Salvation Government’s [control] on several parts of Idlib -- not due to pressure by HTS.”

Commenting on the report that the HTS wants to cut any project implemented in the area, Shaikhouni said the situation is quite the opposite because “HTS is benefitting from the aid”.

“The projects implemented provide services for people that HTS itself can not serve,” he said. 

Reports before HTS’ expansion in January in Idlib documented some of the medical staff’s kidnapping by unidentified armed bands, and several arrests in HTS-held areas. But Shaikhouni says in the current atmosphere, HTS is allowing photographing or filming aid deliveries. 

From Ahmad’s experience of living under HTS, the group is not seemingly blocking aid, even though it seems to have taken part of the aid for itself in the last few months. But it doesn’t mean the civilians receive services either. 

“Every time an attack is renewed, HTS is asking for tax money. But there is no public service in return,” he complains. 

But having sent his wife and two sons to the Turkish border, like thousands of other people, safety is his first concern. 

“There are so many people there in tent camps, a lot of people sleep under trees and there are no basic livelihoods. But I sent them anyway to ensure their security,” he says.

Source: TRT World