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story.lead_photo.caption This photo posted on Tuesday, May 28, 2019 and provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Civil Defense workers searching for victims under the rubble of a destroyed building after an airstrike by Syrian government forces, in the town of Ariha, in the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria. Syrian activists and rescuers say government warplanes and artillery have pounded the last rebel stronghold in the country, killing over a dozen people. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

BEIRUT -- The father could hardly bear seeing his 18-month-old daughter's panic every time the Syrian government warplanes flew over their home. Every day for a month, she ran to him to hide in his arms, tearful and breathless.

Abdurrahim had refused to flee his hometown throughout years of violence, and he was determined to hold out through the new, intensified government offensive launched in April against Idlib province, the last significant territory held by Syria's rebels.

But now he had his first child, Ruwaida, to think about.

"That look on my daughter's face ... is really what is going to kill me," said the 25-year-old Abdurrahim, who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons.

His determination collapsed when an airstrike on May 30 pulverized the house next door, crushing to death three children, one of them a girl Ruwaida's age. He whisked his daughter and wife to a nearby village, hoping it would be safe.

The Syrian government and its Russian backer have turned to a familiar tactic in their assault on Idlib -- relentlessly and systematically striking residential areas, hospitals, markets, crops and infrastructure to break the will of the population and pressure people to flee, according to observers, rights groups and residents.

It's a tried-and-true method that worked for President Bashar Assad's forces in their previous, destructive campaigns that retook the city of Aleppo in 2016 and other strategic territories.

Striking civilians with impunity has been so characteristic of the 8-year civil war that it rarely even raises much international outrage or attention. Monitors say the pattern of strikes clearly show that, far from being collateral damage, civilian homes, businesses and infrastructure are intentional targets of the government.

"Even wars have rules," said Misty Buswell, the Middle East advocacy director for the International Rescue Committee, adding that two hospitals it supports were hit by airstrikes. In this war, she said, attacks on civilians "have happened with absolute impunity."

The impact has been brutal in the rebel enclave centered on Idlib in northwest Syria on the border with Turkey. Some 3 million people are bottled up there, more than half of them displaced from other parts of the country recaptured by the military.

The Syrian military launched its assault in April, backed by government and Russian airstrikes. It has focused on the enclave's southern edges, taking a few villages and bombarding deeper into Idlib.

Bombing "targets everything: bakeries, hospitals, markets. The aim is to stop all services to civilians. Everything," said Wasel Aljirk, a surgeon whose hospital was blasted by strikes.

Five weeks of violence has driven nearly 300,000 people from their homes. Many are living under olive trees, in tents or unfinished buildings, cramming in overcrowded shared rooms. Aid groups fear that figure could spiral to 700,000 displaced.

More than 300 civilians have been killed, according to opposition activists and war monitors. At least 61 children are among those killed since April, according to Save the Children, though Idlib health authorities put the figure at 75 children killed in May alone.

International on 06/08/2019

Print Headline: Syria uses familiar tactic in rebel Idlib province

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