Syrian regime increasing attacks on Idlib, killing 39 people this month as civilians fear an all-out offensive

Since 3 February, the Assad regime has dramatically intensified its attacks on Idlib, using a combination of artillery shelling, cluster munitions and airstrikes. Over the past two weeks, at least 39 civilians in Idlib have been killed and 88 injured. On 15 February alone, the regime killed nine people, six of them children, in an attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which the regime targeted with chemical weapons in April 2017. These assaults are a clear violation of the Idlib demilitarised zone, agreed to by Turkey and Russia last year. They also threaten to worsen an already critical humanitarian situation in Idlib by displacing thousands more civilians.

As with previous attacks, the regime is targeting civilian buildings, including schools and homes, particularly in southern Idlib. Activists say they fear Assad might be preparing for an all-out offensive to reclaim northwest Syria, something that the demilitarised zone aimed to prevent.

“Since 15 February, tens of people have been killed and injured, some burned to death due to the high explosive missiles,” says Alaa, a media activist in Khan Sheikhoun. “The shelling has pushed families to leave their homes and seek refuge in nearby villages or camps. The streets are empty today, as the shelling is ongoing; people who stayed in their homes are terrified of what’s coming next.”

“Civilians are the ones to pay the price, we’re being targeted on a daily basis,” says Hanin Sayed, a journalist, activist and photographer from Maarat al Numan. “Civilians, mostly women and children from many towns including Maarat al Numan and Khan Sheikhoun are getting killed everyday. The regime can’t keep claiming to be targeting terrorists because they’re only targeting civilians, schools, bakeries. A woman in Khan Sheikhoun was burned to death on Sunday.”

Assad has made it no secret that he wants to retake Idlib and its surrounding areas, which are home to three million civilians, one million of them children. In recent months, large parts of the region have been overrun by the extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is opposed by the vast majority of the population. Threatened by extremists on the ground and the regime in the air, millions are in fear for their lives.

Compounding the problem is the ongoing US-led offensive against the Islamic State, which is likely to result in the relocation of Syrian members of the group into Idlib, exacerbating the challenges faced by civilians in the region. The arrival of the extremists may also be used as an excuse by the regime and Russia to increase their assault on the area.

International governments’ decisions to cut aid to northwest Syria, sparked by a fear it could be misappropriated by HTS, has left many civilians facing assault without adequate shelter or medical supplies. Those displaced by the latest attacks face a bleak prospect in finding shelter and support elsewhere in the region, with IDP camps already overwhelmed.

The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, are trying to help those under attack by pulling people from the rubble, providing medical care and evacuating the injured to the nearest hospital.

“We’ve been receiving the injured at our centre especially women and children,” says Oum Omar, a volunteer at Syrian Civil Defence’s women centre in Khan Sheikhoun. “My colleagues and I are working non-stop to rescue civilians and provide first aid for the injured. We are moving the critical cases to hospitals in nearby villages because there are no hospitals here in Khan Sheikhoun. Despite the continuous shelling, we will continue to lend hands to our people and save as many lives as we can.”

“As the world is preoccupied with the imminent defeat of ISIS in eastern Syria, Assad continues to commit war crimes against civilians in the northwest,” says Laila Kiki, Executive Director of the Syria Campaign. “For the 3 million civilians in Idlib, shelling and bloodshed is their daily reality. Turkey, Russia and all other parties must make sure the Idlib demilitarised zone is upheld and that the regime is prevented from launching an offensive on the northwest that would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe of unimaginable scale.”