A displaced family from a village in southern Idlib repair their vehicle as they head on the Damascus-Aleppo motorway towards the northern part of the rebel-held province on December 29, 2017. Clashes pitting mainly jihadist and rebel fighters against regime forces backed by Russian warplanes killed at 66 people on the edge of Syria's northwestern Idlib province, a monitor said. / AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADOUROMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images
A displaced family from southern Idlib heads for the more northern, rebel-held, part of the province on Friday © AFP

Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have intensified a push into northwestern Idlib, the only province that remains fully outside government control, and the last potent symbol of a six-year revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Government forces have pummelled the opposition-held southeastern borders of Syria’s Idlib and Hama provinces with air strikes and artillery, capturing more than 50 villages in an area where the jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has become the dominant force.

Idlib’s fate is a major concern to humanitarian organisations. It has become home to a powerful jihadi force, but also has a population that has swelled to more than 2m people, most of them displaced civilians with nowhere else left to flee, since the nearby Turkish border is closed to them.

The province is meant to be one of four ‘de-escalation zones’ where clashes were supposed to be halted. The four were set up by Russia and the regional powers of Turkey and Iran. However, Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s armed forces, called for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to be “eliminated” this week and described this goal as a top priority for military operations in Syria in 2018.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said 60 people, 19 of them civilians, had died over 24 hours. Over the past four days, it said Russia and regime forces had struck the area with more than 200 air raids and more than 1,000 artillery strikes.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda franchise that has since declared itself independent, has been gradually taking control of Idlib from more moderate opposition groups. Those groups’ power, already diminishing, was further weakened as the US and other powers that once backed the rebels began cutting support this year.

Although Idlib has been a regular target of air strikes by Russian and government forces in recent years, its population has grown. Tens of thousands of militants and civilians have been sent to the province having been forced from areas recaptured by the regime.

The Syrian government has been on the ascendant in the past year, largely because of Russia’s military intervention.

The Idlib offensive is likely to be aimed at Abu Dhuhur air base, said Tareq Abdelhaq, an activist from the province. He speculated that fighting would not go much further because of the large number of fighters and civilians in the area.

“They can’t take all of Idlib, that kind of war could go on for another 10 years,” he said. “You cannot force everyone to flee — that is impossible. You can’t kill them all, that’s also impossible. And you can’t arrest them all either.”

Turkish forces are also based in one corner of Idlib as part of the de-escalation monitoring process — another potential flashpoint should government forces push on further.

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