BEIRUT — The Syrian army and its allies have launched ground attacks in the country’s northwest against the last major insurgent enclave after days of shelling and air strikes, a rebel official said on Monday.
Syria’s military, backed in the war by Russia and Iran, opened a fierce bombardment of the rebels’ northwestern enclave of Idlib and surrounding areas last week, causing a wave of displacement from frontline areas.
Syrian state news agency SANA reported on Monday that the army had “expanded its response to violations” by rebels. A reporter on state-owned Ikhbariya TV said this was limited to air and artillery strikes so far.
The army “might resort to a ground operation at some point”, he said without elaborating.
Northwest Syria is covered by a deal agreed in September between the government’s ally Russia and the rebels’ ally Turkey that averted a major offensive.
Fighting has concentrated on the southwestern edge of the enclave, near the rebel-held town of Kafr Nabouda, said Naji Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgent group.
“This morning since dawn the regime began a violent bombardment”, he said, adding that rebels had repulsed several government efforts to advance at the villages of Al Janabara and Tel Othman.
“It was the first time there was an attempt at a wide attack” since the start of the bombardment last week, he said.
The bombardment has displaced more than 158,000 people since April 28, said Ahmad Al Dbis, safety and security manager for the US-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, which supports medical facilities in the area.
“If the regime continues to advance like this there will be a bigger humanitarian catastrophe and the more the regime advances, the bigger cities it targets,” he said.