Pro-government forces have massed on the edges of Idlib, wedged into Syria’s northwest along the Turkish border. Syrian and Russian officials — key allies in Syria’s long conflict — appear to be preparing for an all-out assault to retake the area for good.
But there are deep fears that an attempt to reclaim Idlib could touch off major bloodshed and a humanitarian crisis among the area’s 3 million civilians, half of them displaced from elsewhere in Syria.
At a meeting in Tehran on Friday, the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey failed to agree on a cease-fire to halt the violence.
Although on different sides of the war, Turkey and Russia share an interest in preventing the situation from unraveling.
Turkey worries the violence could send hundreds of thousands of fleeing civilians to its border. Russia is wary of being drawn deeper into a bloody battle as it tells international partners that Syria is stabilizing and open for reconstruction.
The Observatory said Saturday that some 2,000 people were already on the move from areas being bombed, heading deeper into Idlib province.
Al-Qaeda-linked rebels, known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, control more than half of Idlib, and much of the Russian and Syrian government rhetoric has focused on a need to defeat the group.
It is also home to a Turkey-backed coalition known as the National Liberation Front, as well as civilians who have left their previous homes instead of agreeing to “reconciliation” agreements with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Many fear conscription or arrest.
The state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said Saturday that the Syrian government was retaliating against rebel shelling on a government-held area south of Idlib. The barrage late Friday in Mhradah killed at least nine civilians, according to state media. The reports could not be independently verified.
“Renewed fighting in Idlib could produce suffering to rival the human misery seen in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Raqqa,” said Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Near and Middle East at the International Committee of the Red Cross, in reference to the bloodiest battles of the seven-year war.
There were no signs that any side was backing down.
“We consider it unacceptable when the protection of the civilian population is used as a pretext for letting terrorists avoid a strike,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference in Tehran on Friday.
Emad al-Moujahid, a spokesman for HTS, described his organization as “part of the Syrian society” and vowed “military surprises” against Syrian and Russian forces.