The alarming violence in the Idlib region threatens to unravel a truce reached between Turkey and Russia last year that averted a bloody assault by the government to retake the province, the last major rebel stronghold in war-torn Syria, The Associated Press reported.
The escalation raises fears once more of a major assault by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
Idlib has been in the hands of opposition forces for years, even as Assad’s military has succeeded in retaking other rebel enclaves one after the other. The province is now home to some 3 million people, many of them displaced from other former opposition territory. Earlier this year, al-Qaeda-linked militants took over the province, squeezing out most other factions after clashes with Turkey-backed opposition fighters.
Since then, government forces have intensified airstrikes and bombardment of Idlib towns. Since mid-February some 100,000 people have been displaced, largely by government bombardment, and have fled to villages deeper in rebel-held territory, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights. The group said that around 140 people, including 69 civilians, have been killed.
The mounting violence points to how Syria’s nearly eight-year-long civil war still has the capability to burst once more into major bloodshed. The focus of the US and other countries has been on defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which once held eastern and northern Syria, and Assad’s conflict with his opponents has quieted in recent months after government victories and the truce. But the root of that conflict remains.
The militants, from an al-Qaeda-linked group called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, Arabic for the Levant Liberation Committee, have also stepped up their attacks — in retaliation, they say, for the government bombardment.
In the early hours of a cold morning earlier this month, militants attacked several Syrian army positions and checkpoints on the edge of Idlib in the village of Masasneh, killing nearly two dozen soldiers — one of the most serious attacks on government forces since the truce reached in September. The attack triggered hours of fighting and bombardment that killed and wounded dozens of insurgents.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry warned afterward that the military was in “full readiness” to deal with repeated violations of the truce.
Russia, which backs Assad, and Turkey, which supports opposition factions, put together the truce in September. They agreed to establish a 15-20 kilometer (9-12 miles) deep demilitarized zone in Idlib in which they said militants will not have a presence. The deal also offered the Syrian government and Russia one of their main demands — opening two key highways that pass through Idlib and link northern Syria with Damascus and other cities. But neither provision was implementing despite a deadline for opening the roads by the end of 2018.
Still, the truce has been vital to keeping a degree of calm and preventing an all-out battle for Idlib that could be extremely bloody and drag in Russia and Turkey.