The Bashar Assad regime and its allies have stepped up attacks in recent days on northwestern Idlib, Syria's de-escalation zone, leaving 33 civilians dead and forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes.
Since talks were held in Astana in April under the auspices of guarantor countries Turkey, Russia and Iran, the Bashar Assad regime and its allies have carried out numerous air and ground attacks on civilian areas within the de-escalation zone.
Mohamed Hallaj, head of the Coordinators of Interventions in Syria, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), told Anadolu Agency (AA) that the violence had forced some 6,000 families, around 42,000 people, to flee the region since April.
Hallaj expects the trend to continue, with displaced persons taking shelter in the Atme region near the Turkey-Syria border, which was already purged of terrorist elements by Turkey's Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield operations.
Areas subjected to recent regime attacks include Idlib's southwestern villages of Kansafra, Termela, Bsekla, Has, Kafarin, Abdin, Ureynibe, Al-Habit and Al-Mintar; the Kafranbude and Latemne districts on Hama's rural outskirts; and the villages of Al-Sahr, Al-Inkawi, Al-Tuwayna, Al-Uramye, Bab al-Taqa, Al-Huwayz, Al-Hamra, Al-Hawwas and Al-Hawice west of Hama city.
According to a tally compiled by AA, at least 33 civilians have been killed in attacks since April 25. In its April report, the U.K.-based Syrian Network for Human Rights said 127 civilians had been killed by regime attacks while another 13 were killed by Russian airstrikes.
Idlib, home to 1.5 million people, is the last opposition enclave in Syria that has been protected from a massive regime offensive by the deal reached between Ankara and Moscow in September 2018. The deal established a ceasefire in Idlib on the condition that heavy arms and extremist groups 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, regime attacks on the last opposition enclave have been escalating for some time, 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, which 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.
Backed by Russia and Iran, the Assad regime currently controls some 60 percent of Syrian territory, while the opposition and anti-regime armed groups control roughly 10 percent.
The European Union on Friday called for protecting the inhabitants of Idlib and ensuring humanitarian access to the province. "With the marked increase of airstrikes over Idlib province and northern Hama over the past weeks and days, we are once again running the risk of a dangerous escalation in Idlib," said a statement by the EU spokesperson. "The civilian population cannot afford this risk: they have already suffered far too much," the statement added.
The EU noted that the recent attacks have been carried out on densely populated areas, homes, medical facilities and settlements for internally displaced people. It drew attention to the importance of the Sochi agreement.
"This agreement needs to hold: A military escalation in Idlib would put at risk the lives of more than three million civilians living in the region," the statement said. It said: "Only a political process that respects the freedom and the dignity of all Syrian people in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2254 and the Geneva Communiqué can bring about a lasting solution to the conflict."
Calling on Russia to comply with its commitments and put an end to the escalation in Idlib, the U.N. also 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 just 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. According to the Syria Intervention Coordinator, a local civil society organization, some 160,583 people from 25,776 families had to migrate to surrounding areas along the Turkish-Syrian border to escape attacks between Feb. 9 and April 6.