KAFR TAAL, Syria: A Syrian boy cries as he sits on the rubble of the house where he lived with his displaced family in this village in Aleppo’s western countryside after pro-regime bombardment on Monday. – AFP

BEIRUT: Russian air strikes killed 13 civilians yesterday in northwestern Syria, as renewed violence tightened the noose around the country’s last major rebel-held bastion and deepened an already dire humanitarian crisis. Retaliatory rocket attacks blamed on rebels and jihadists killed three more civilians in the government-held city of Aleppo in northern Syria, state news agency SANA said.

The spike in violence in the neighboring provinces of Aleppo and Idlib follow so far unsuccessful diplomatic attempts to reduce hostilities in the flashpoint region, with the latest truce in theory going into effect less than two weeks ago. Most of Idlib and parts of Aleppo province are still controlled by factions opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including a group that includes onetime members of Al-Qaeda’s former Syria franchise.

The Damascus regime, which controls around 70 percent of the country after nearly nine years of war, has repeatedly vowed to recapture the region. Yesterday, air strikes by regime-ally Russia on a rebel-held region in Aleppo’s western countryside killed eight members of the same family sheltering in a house, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Six children were among those killed in the raid on Kfar Taal village, where three girls already died a day earlier in strikes, according to the Britain-based monitor. Three other victims where killed in separate Russian air strikes on western Aleppo on Tuesday, while raids also by Moscow in a southern region of Idlib killed two more people, the Observatory said.

“Over the past three days, the bombardment on Idlib and its surroundings, including in western Aleppo, has been exclusively Russian,” saud Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman. “They want to push rebels and jihadists away from the city of Aleppo and from the motorway linking Aleppo to Damascus,” Abdel Rahman said. SANA said rebel rocket fire also killed two women and a child in Aleppo city.

Imminent offensive?
The surge in violence comes despite a ceasefire announced by Russia earlier this month that never really took hold. Russia has thousands of forces deployed across Syria in support of the army, while a contingent of Russian private security personnel also operates on the ground. Moscow’s military intervention in 2015, four years into the Syrian conflict, helped keep Assad in power and marked a long, bloody reconquest of territory lost to rebels in early stages of the war.

Abdul Rahman said the latest spate in air strikes could be a prelude to a land offensive in western Aleppo, as the regime and its allies continue their drive to shrink the last opposition-held pocket. “The regime has massed reinforcements on the outskirts of the city of Aleppo,” Abdel Rahman said.

The violence in northern Syria is escalating an already dire humanitarian situation, with aid groups warning of displacement on an unprecedented scale. Idlib province alone is home to at least three million people, many of whom are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

According to the UN humanitarian coordination agency OCHA, almost 350,000 people have fled their homes since Dec 1, mainly heading northwards from southern Idlib, which has borne the brunt of the air strikes. The International Rescue Committee has warned another 650,000 people, mostly children and women, could be forced from their homes if the violence continues. – AFP