Airstrikes by Damascus regime ally Russia killed 78 Turkish-backed rebels in northwestern Syria on Monday, a monitor said in the bloodiest escalation since a ceasefire nearly eight months ago.
More than 90 others were injured when Russian warplanes targeted a training camp in the Faylaq al-Sham faction in the Jabal Duwayli area of Idlib province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In early March, a ceasefire mediated between Moscow and Ankara sparked a deadly months-long Russian-backed military offensive against the country’s last major rebel stronghold in Idlib.
This December attack had displaced nearly a million people from their homes in one of the worst humanitarian crises of the nine-year civil war.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman described Monday’s strikes as “deadly since the ceasefire took effect”.
The National Liberation Front, an umbrella group of Ankara-backed rebels based in Idlib that includes Faylaq al-Sham, told AFP that Monday’s Russian strikes hit one of its positions and caused losses. It did not give an exact death toll.
NLF spokesman Sayf Raad condemned the “Russian air and regime forces that continually violate the Turkish-Russian agreement regarding military positions, villages and towns”.
Of the nearly one million people displaced in the latest Idlib offensive, more than 200,000 have returned to their towns and villages, most since the ceasefire came into force.
The ceasefire in March has largely held, despite some intermittent bombings in the area from both sides.
Russian airstrikes have from time to time been targeted at military positions, including those supported by Turkey, Abdel Rahman said.
American strike in the northwest
The U.S. military said on Thursday it was carrying out a drone strike against al-Qaeda leaders in northwestern Syria, where the observatory reported that 17 jihadists were killed at a dinner party.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by Syria’s former al-Qaida ally, and allied insurgents dominate the region of about three million people, about half of whom live in camps after being displaced by fighting in other parts of the country.
Last week, Turkey withdrew from one of its largest outposts in northwestern Syria, which last year had been surrounded by Syrian regime forces.
Outpost in Morek had been Turkey’s largest in Hama province, most of which is now under Syrian government control.
After a series of military victories backed by Russia, the Syrian government has regained control of about 70 percent of the country, the observatory says.
Syria’s war, which erupted after the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011, has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad.
UN envoy visits
Endless rounds of UN-backed peace talks have failed to stem the bloodshed and in recent years have been largely overtaken by a parallel track of negotiations led by Russia and Turkey.
On Sunday, UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen visited Damascus and met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
Pedersen then said the meeting “touched on all issues related to Security Council Resolution 2254” for a political solution to the conflict.
“It is my hope that meetings we have had today and meetings we will continue to have could be the beginning of something new,” he said.
The UN envoy said he would then hold talks with members of the political opposition.
“Hopefully we can see if it is possible to find more common ground on how we can move this process forward,” he added.