ANKARA: At least 80,000 civilians have fled a renewed onslaught by Assad regime forces against the opposition-held enclave of Idlib in northwest Syria.
Eight more people, including three women and two children, were killed on Sunday when Russian fighter jets struck a convoy of cars leaving the city of Maarat Al-Numan. It followed Russian airstrikes on Saturday on a market in Saraqeb city, east of Idlib, in which at least eight died.
Idlib is nominally controlled by a militant alliance led by the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, but residents said many towns and villages were now deserted.
“They have turned into ghost towns. Russia’s ‘scorched earth’ bombing is helping the army gain ground,” said Mohamad Rasheed, an activist from the area.
Western military sources said the latest bombardment was a prelude to a widescale ground offensive to take over Idlib, Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s last remaining target.
But the civilian flight north toward the border with Turkey is creating a new refugee crisis for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The regime offensive also calls into question the presence of 12 Turkish observation posts in northwest Syria, part of a 2017 deal with Russia and Iran to avert large-scale fighting there.
Regional analyst Halid Abdurrahman said the posts were now pointless because the regime could surround and bypass them.
Erdogan’s strategy had been a high-risk one from the beginning, said Bill Park, a research fellow at King’s College, London.
“Turkish forces have intruded into the territory of a sovereign state, and backed groups opposed to the Syrian regime. Damascus is bound to want to extend its own control there,” he told Arab News.
“Turkey has clearly been unable or unwilling to effectively control its proxy forces, who in any case have done little to stabilize the situation. Russian and Syrian frustration with Turkey’s proxies in Idlib has been evident for some time. It is possible that Ankara’s forces will clash with Russian and regime forces in Afrin and northeast Syria as well.”
Turkey should seek stability in Syria, rather than undermine it, he said.