Since December, intensive aerial bombardment and ground fighting in Idlib, a de-escalation zone, have killed almost 300 civilians and triggered one of the largest waves of displacement in the nine-year war.

A handout picture released by SANA on February 3, 2020 shows Syrian troops gathering in an area southwest of Saraqeb during their assault on Idlib region.
A handout picture released by SANA on February 3, 2020 shows Syrian troops gathering in an area southwest of Saraqeb during their assault on Idlib region. (AFP)

Syrian regime on Wednesday pressed on with their offensive in the northwest that has displaced half a million people despite heightened tensions with Turkey.

Russian-backed Syrian regime forces on Wednesday pressed on with their offensive in Idlib, where they have seized more than 20 towns and villages over the past 24 hours, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and state news agency SANA.

Intensive aerial bombardment and ground fighting in Idlib region, a de-escalation zone, since December have killed almost 300 civilians and triggered one of the largest waves of displacement in the nine-year war.

The UN and aid groups have condemned the escalation and called for an end to hostilities in a region that is home to three to four million people, half of them already displaced from other parts of Syria.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday warned that his country will give Syrian forces till the end of February to retreat behind Turkish military posts. He accused them of driving "innocent and grieving people" towards the Turkish border.

Fall of Saraqeb

With their latest advance, the Syrian regime has nearly encircled Saraqeb in southern Idlib and is now within less than a mile of the strategic highway town, which has been emptied of its residents following weeks of bombardment, the observatory said.

Holdout opposition forces can only exit from the north, with regime forces deployed on all other sides, according to the war monitor group.

A regime military source quoted by SANA late Tuesday said the regime was giving its enemies in Saraqeb and nearby areas a "last chance", calling on them to surrender their arms.

The Syrian regime was poised this week to recapture Saraqeb. But its push hit a snag after regime forces exchanged deadly fire with Turkish troops on Monday, an escalation UN chief Antonio Guterres called "extremely worrying".

Regime shelling of Turkish positions in Idlib killed seven Turkish soldiers and one civilian contractor, Ankara said.

Erdogan said retaliatory strikes killed at least 70 regime troops. The observatory put the toll at a lower number, 13 troops

The exchange was their deadliest clash since Ankara sent troops to Syria in 2016.

It further tested the uneasy coordination between Russia and Turkey, the two main foreign brokers in the Syrian conflict.

Under a 2018 deal with Russia, Turkey set up 12 military observation posts in Idlib aimed at preventing a full assault by Syrian forces.

Displacing the displaced

Many of those living in Idlib had been displaced from war in cities elsewhere in Syria and had fled to the northwestern province to survive. 

They are now struggling to find shelter as refugee camps are overcrowded and lack essential infrastructure. Thousands of families are in dire need of humanitarian aid as they struggle to live under harsh winter conditions.

In September 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited.

But, more than 1,300 civilians have been killed in attacks by the regime and Russian forces in the de-escalation zone since then as the ceasefire continues to be violated.

In a fresh move, Turkey announced on January 10 that a new ceasefire in Idlib would start just after midnight on January 12. However, the regime and Iran-backed militant groups continued their attacks.

Since 2016, Turkey has launched a trio of successful anti-terrorist operations across its border into northern Syria to prevent the formation of a terror corridor: Operations Euphrates Shield (2016), Olive Branch (2018) and Peace Spring (October 2019).

Since the war started in Syria in 2011, Turkey has accepted some 3.7 million Syrians who fled their country, making it the world's top refugee-hosting country.

Source: AFP