Russian-backed Syrian government forces will be able to advance all the way to the Turkish border if they pierce rebel defences in the northwest, a top opposition official in the Idlib province said, urging Turkey to do more to shield the area from a major attack.
The month-long onslaught is the most serious escalation of the war between President Bashar al-Assad and his enemies since last summer.
Syrian government air raids and barrel bombing backed by Russian air power have uprooted around 250,000 people in the territory, the last significant rebel stronghold.
Fawaz Hilal, the head of the “Salvation Government” that runs Idlib province, expressed confidence that opposition fighters gathered in the Idlib region from all over Syria would be able to resist the onslaught.
“This ferocious attack is a bone-breaking battle. If the regime is able to break our defensive lines in northern Hama and southern Idlib it will not stop until it reaches the borders,” Hilal told the Reuters news agency.
His government, backed by the Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) rebel group, had called on its employees to help shoulder the “military burden” through building sandbag defences, manning front lines, financial support or any other help.
“We are optimistic despite this military campaign. If we weren’t, we would not be here today,” he said.
The bombardment has killed 229 civilians and injured 727 since April 28, according to The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), a United States-based medical NGO.
Call for Turkish support
Hilal said the Turkish positions around the area had been allowed to be established in the hope their presence would provide protection for the people.
“But the reality says that these positions are not able to protect themselves today,” he said.
“We hope that the Turkish side will … defend these positions they set up and the areas they entered and prevent Russian and Syrian jets from flying in the areas where they are present, and the shelling of surrounding areas,” he said.
Russia has firmly backed al-Assad’s government in the eight-year civil war, while Turkey has supported some of the rebel groups, but the two sides had worked together to try to contain fighting in the country’s northwest. However, the two countries have been at odds over the last rebel stronghold.
Turkey and Russia agreed on a truce in Idlib last November after Ankara pledged to disarm and remove the HTS fighters there in a deal reached last September in the Russian city of Sochi.
Since the Sochi agreement, Moscow at various times said that “terrorist groups” were operating in the zone.
Russia has also been piling pressure on Ankara to start an operation in Idlib after Turkey’s failure to get the HTS fighters out of the “de-escalation zone”.
Turkey has said the recent Syrian government attacks violated the Sochi agreement.
New attacks target Idlib
Meanwhile, rescuers and activists said on Monday at least six people were killed and 10 remain under rubble following Syrian government air raids on a crowded residential area in Idlib, according to the Associated Press news agency.
The first responders said five women and a child were killed. Rescue workers were still searching for survivors under the rubble after the air raids hit in the town of Ariha on Monday.
Video footage from the scene by rescuers showed a narrow alley blocked by the debris from a pulverised building. Survivors covered in white dust were among those who lifted a wounded man onto a gurney and a young girl into the ambulance.
Al Jazeera and news agencies
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