Syrian and Russian air forces continue to bombard villages in rural Idlib, northern Syria, after launching 192 attacks on rebel forces last month, displacing thousands of civilians and destroying health infrastructure.
Attacks in early July, bolstered by artillery and mortar fire from government-held areas, resulted in the deaths of 54 civilians, including 11 children and 10 women, and more than 148 wounded people.
At the same time, local armed groups supplied and funded by Turkey are threatening to resume military campaigns if attacks on civilians continue, a spokesman told The National.
That would risk a major escalation in the 10-year-old conflict which has claimed at least half a million lives.
Local activists say at least 702 aerial attacks have been launched since early this year, causing the death of more than 110 civilians in north-west Syria, including women and children.
Attacks targeted 24 vital civilian facilities including two hospitals, two civil defence centres and police stations, schools, camps, fuel refineries and a mosque.
Three hundred people had to be rescued in the aftermath of these attacks, according to the Syrian Civil Defence forces — more commonly known as the White Helmets.
Many of the civilians were buried under rubble, including 52 boys and girls under the age of 14.
Firas Al Khalifa, a media officer with the White Helmets, said the continuous escalation since June was accompanied by displacement from the targeted areas.
Like millions of Syrian civilians before them, Idlib’s new waves of internal refugees fear never being able to return home, while holding out hope that the conflict will end soon.
The farming communities of Zawiya Mountain recently returned to their towns to harvest their crops.
Villages and towns in Zawiya Mountain were bombarded with mortar shells launched from government-held territory to the south, in addition to air force raids targeting a number of areas in the western countryside.
“The civil defence centre in Qastoun village in western Idlib was attacked, resulting in its complete destruction and a civil defence volunteer getting killed and five other members wounded”, a civil defence representative said.
“Mortars killed another volunteer of the Violet Organisation, along with five members of his family, on July 3. He is one of the cadres in the humanitarian organisations working in the area.”
Abdul Karim Al Omar, a political activist from Zardana in Idlib, said Russia was behind the increased attacks.
“The Russian position is to stand by these attacks. Russia is responsible for the escalation”, Mr Al Omar said.
He believes that Russia is keen on the Syrian regime restoring relations with neighbouring countries after the recent presidential election that continued Bashar Al Assad's rule, despite the international rejection of the election and the popular rejection in areas outside the government's control.
The US position has been made clear by the Caesar Act, he said.
The legislation was passed by Donald Trump's administration in 2019 and targeted a wide range of Syrian government-linked entities, including businesses and regime-linked figures, with sanctions.
It also extended to foreign companies doing business with those entities.
“However, there is no American vision for any solution until today, but supposedly it exists. But it is not urgent. However, prolonging the conflict means more deaths and more displacement”, Mr Al Omar said.
He said opposition forces consider the optimal basic solution to the crisis to be the Geneva Communique of 2012, and UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The resolution, passed in 2016, called for an immediate end to violence, although it excluded ultraradical groups such as ISIS and the Syrian wing of Al Qaeda, then known as Jabhat Al Nusra.
The Geneva Communique called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the formation of a transitional, inclusive government in Syria that could pave the way for free elections.
In the absence of any concrete plan to stop the continuing violence, Mr Al Omar said Turkey’s position, to carve out enclaves with its army and paramilitary groups, was justified.
“Turkey is part of March 5 agreement, which provides for the cessation of military operations”, he said, arguing that Turkey has an interest in stopping attacks on civilians.
Recent political developments point to an agreement on a “military-free zone”, following meetings between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Antalya, Turkey, Mr Al Omar said.
But “the Russian escalation today aims to put pressure on the opposition before the next security session is held”, he said.
“Syrian people need a comprehensive solution that fulfils their aspirations in establishing a state of freedom and citizenship.”
Turkish-backed groups warn Syrian forces
Military operations led by the regime and backed by Russian forces are continuing but the intensity of air raids and artillery bombardments varies widely, according to Capt Naji Al Mustafa, spokesman of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.
“These operations are accompanied by night-time infiltrations and attempts to advance on some points. Our fighters have managed to stop a lot of these attempts and caused losses to the groups trying to advance.”
Since 2012, the Syrian army has augmented its forces with Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran-backed Iraqi militias.
“All scenarios are expected. Our members are preparing to face possible military operations and we have established a number of camps to raise their combat level”, Capt Al Mustafa said.
“We have also developed defensive and attacking military plans proportional to the nature of the land and some advanced fortifications in fear of any possible attack.”
Capt Al Mustafa stressed that all military actions taken made by the Free Syrian Army forces would be in response to violations committed by Syrian and Russian forces against civilians.