Many regard the recent intense air bombardments by the Bashar Assad regime on Syria's northwestern province of Idlib as the deadliest and heaviest one since the cease-fire was inked by Turkey and Russia. As the death toll keeps mounting in the region, the attacks have prompted fears of a new refugee wave as result of an upcoming regime operation and risk the downfall of the political resolution to the conflict.
Since Tuesday, Russian and Iran-backed regime forces have ramped up their extensive aerial and ground attacks on the last opposition stronghold, indiscriminately targeting civilian areas. The regime continues to shell and drop missiles, bombs and barrel bombs, a bomb prohibited under international law that is packed with explosives and shrapnel that causes indiscriminate destruction on the demilitarized zone.
Local sources underscored that numerous educational facilities, health facilities and residential areas are being bombed by helicopters and planes. Dozens of civilians were killed while thousands were forced to flee to camps further north along the Turkish border.
Sources also stressed that the regime and affiliated militias have been reinforcing their military build-ups, claiming that the number of militias surrounding the region reached 20,000.
In relation to the issue, the British Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Wednesday said that regime shelling over the past two days has been the most intense since the agreement between Moscow and Ankara.
"The barrel bombing is the worst we have seen for at least 15 months," Panos Moumtzis, the U.N.'s regional humanitarian coordinator, told Reuters on Thursday.
Idlib, home to 1.5 million people, is the last opposition enclave in Syria which has been also protected from a massive regime offensive by the deal reached between Ankara and Moscow in September 2018. The deal established a cease-fire in the Idlib on the condition that heavy arms and extremist groups would withdraw from the region.
Prior to the agreement, the Assad regime was signaling an expansive military operation against Idlib, after it recaptured three "de-escalation" zones out of four determined by the Astana process in Idlib, north of the central city of Homs, the Eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus and in the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra.
However, despite the deal, the regime attacks on the last opposition enclave have been escalating for some time now, killing thousands of civilians with many others injured and fueling concerns that a new crisis will erupt. A new refugee crisis is not only a concern for Turkey that already hosts nearly 4 million refugees, but it would also have implications for Europe. It has been estimated that around 700,000 people may arrive in Turkey from where they might attempt to go to Europe.
Calling Russia to comply with its commitments and put an end to the escalation in Idlib, the U.N. declared that over 138,500 women, children, and men have been displaced from northern Hama and southern Idlib since February with 32,500 of them being only in April while 200 civilians were killed by the fierce attacks within the same period.
The number of displaced people in Idlib since February is more than double the number of people forced to move during battles against Daesh between December and March.
The military escalation is expected to be included in the meeting in Geneva on Friday between envoys from Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom. The latest developments in the ongoing Syrian conflict will be discussed, with particular emphasis on rising violence in northwest Syria, the need for unhindered humanitarian assistance throughout the country, and further support for U.N. efforts to foster a Geneva-based political process.
However, the recent escalation in Idlib keeps raising doubts surrounding a political process capable of yielding solutions as Russian President Vladimir Putin's remarks last weekend suggesting that the operation into the enclave is among the possibilities in the future are not reassuring either.