Thousands of protesters in northern Idlib mark 11 years since the start of anti-regime uprising in the Arab country, with some waving Ukrainian flags and urging Ukrainians to resist "common enemy" Russia.

More than 5,000 Syrians took part in one of the largest rallies the beleaguered Idlib region has seen in months.
More than 5,000 Syrians took part in one of the largest rallies the beleaguered Idlib region has seen in months. (Reuters)

Thousands of protesters in Syria's opposition and rebel enclave of Idlib have marked 11 years since the start of an anti-regime uprising, buoyed by the global outcry over Russia's assault on Ukraine.

Gathered on the main square on Tuesday in the northwestern city of Idlib, more than 5,000 people took part in one of the largest rallies the beleaguered region has seen in months.

Many of the demonstrators hoped the attack launched by the Syrian regime's main backer Russia in Ukraine would rekindle interest in their cause.

"What is happening in Ukraine today is similar to the situation here; the enemy is the same and the goal is the same," protester Radwan Atrash told the AFP news agency.

Thousands of demonstrators marked the date in other cities across opposition-held northern Syria.

Regime leader Bashar al Assad's grip on power held by a thread after a nationwide uprising that erupted on March 15, 2011 escalated into a fully-fledged civil war.

But a decision by Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to throw his military might behind the Syrian regime changed the course of the conflict and saved Assad's hold on power.

The war left half a million people dead, mostly in attacks by the regime and its allies, including both Russian and Iranian forces, as well as a myriad of militia groups.

Around four million people, at least half of them displaced, now live in a region of northwestern Syria that is the last enclave fighting Assad's rule despite years of deadly Russian-backed offensives.

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People in Syria hold banners in support of the Ukrainians during their opposition-rally in Idlib
People in Syria hold banners in support of the Ukrainians during their opposition-rally in Idlib (AFP)

Same enemy, same suffering

A few Ukrainian flags were visible at the Idlib protest, as were banners expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian people and demanding action against Putin.

A medic among the protesters at the city's main roundabout had some advice for his counterparts in Ukraine.

"Fortify your hospitals with cement blocks; the enemy Putin does not distinguish between civilians, wounded people and fighters," said Ali Hamoush, who works at an Idlib hospital.

Russia has repeatedly targeted medical facilities in Syria, according to witnesses, medics and human rights groups.

A paediatric hospital was hit by an apparent Russian strike in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol last week, fuelling accusations of "war crimes" against Putin.

As the conflict drags on, rights groups have pleaded for the international community not to forget Syria.

"While we look with shock and horror at what is unfolding in Ukraine, we are reminded of the intense and worsening suffering that the Syrian population has endured," Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said this week.

"One of the greatest human tragedies of our time has gotten worse over the last year in the shadow of crises elsewhere."

Battered economy

Syria's economy has been battered by a decade of conflict and gruelling sanctions.

"The coincidence of this year's anniversary with the appalling Russian aggression against Ukraine... highlights Russia's brutal and destructive behaviour in both conflicts," Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the United States said in a joint statement.

Last week, the UN commission for inquiry on Syria called for "a review of the implementation and impacts of sanctions currently imposed on Syria" in light of deteriorating living conditions.

But the five nations said they do "not support efforts to normalise relations with the Assad regime".

READ MORE: UN war crimes investigators: US needs to answer for air strikes in Syria

Forced into fight

Assad is among the few heads of state to openly support Putin's assault on Ukraine.

Moscow is currently recruiting thousands of fighters in Syria, from the regular army and from militia groups, to be put on standby for possible deployment in Ukraine.

The stiff resistance faced by Russian troops and Putin's growing pariah status appeared to galvanise the Idlib crowd.

"My message to the Ukrainian people is 'Don't give up'," said protester Salwa Abdelrahman, 49. "Eleven years have passed, but we are undaunted and, God willing, victory is ours."

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Source: AFP