This photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets shows civil defense workers searching in the rubble after airstrikes hit in Khan Sheikhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria, Sept, 24, 2017.
This photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets shows civil defense workers searching in the rubble after airstrikes hit in Khan Sheikhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria, Sept, 24, 2017.

With his hair and face caked in dust, the little boy appears ghostly. Syrian emergency workers known as White Helmets say the toddler, appearing in a tweeted photo, had just been rescued from the rubble of a building hit in an airstrike in the northern Syria province of Idlib.  

“He laughed and said, ‘I still alive,’” according to the tweet, of a first responder, posted just hours before Russia on Thursday denied widespread allegations from monitoring groups that its warplanes have killed more than 150 civilians in airstrikes in Idlib over the past few days.

The Russian Defense Ministry said its warplanes do not target civilian areas.

The denial is vehemently disputed by emergency workers and rebels, who have been battling to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for more than six years. They say Idlib and the neighboring province of Hama have been turned into what rebel commanders describe as a “kill box” with airstrikes coming thick and fast without discriminating between civilians and combatants.   

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which receives its information from a network of monitors inside Syria, says the air raids have steadily increased since September 19, “killing and injuring more people every time they raid.”

The monitoring group said some airstrikes have been targeting the bases of Islamic and rebel factions, but in many cases civilian property and infrastructure have been hit, too - including clinics and schools.

Mounting casualties

The Observatory says it has documented more than 1,280 airstrikes in the past seven days with 156 civilian casualties, including 38 children below the age of 18 and 29 women over the age of 18. It also claimed to have documented “at least 394 people injured with different severity, some of whom suffered permanent disabilities, others still seriously injured.”

The death toll has been high also for Islamic and rebel factions with at least 165 fighters killed, about a third of them from al Qaida-connected Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham.

This frame grab provided Sept. 26, 2017, by the Ru
This frame grab provided Sept. 26, 2017, by the Russian Defense Ministry press service shows alleged militants positions being hit in Syria's Idlib province by Russia airstrikes.

Free Syrian Army-aligned rebel commanders have argued for nearly a year - since Russian-backed regime forces last December captured insurgent districts in Aleppo city - that Idlib was being readied to become a “kill box,” an area in which foes are funneled and targeted for final defeat.

Western military tacticians suspected also that was the game plan of Russian and Iranian commanders, who have been overseeing the regime's war machine.

Syria's notoriously divisive rebel factions faced a stark choice in the wake of their demoralizing defeat in eastern Aleppo: unify and have a chance of survival or continue to squabble and risk the regime finishing off the revolution.

Rifts, though, persisted. Some factions, desperate for arms and supplies, which were reduced substantially and then cut by the U.S., were diverted from the fight against Assad and teamed up with Turkey in the Euphrates Shield operation, an Ankara initiative focused on driving Kurdish fighters and the Islamic State terror group away from the border with Turkey.

Some factions joined the U.S.-backed Kurdish-dominated force battling to capture Raqqa, Syria from the Islamic State terror group.

And others, including some moderate Islamic factions, decided to hang on in Idlib, where they have lost military clout to the hardline Islamists of Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham.

The crisis of the armed Syrian revolution has been prolonged — the air blitz of Idlib is another chapter in the long drawn out endgame, fear rebel commanders and Idlib residents.

One resident, Maher Abu Hassan, issued via social media a sardonic appeal Monday to the United Nations, Russian President Vladimir Putin and others, asking for Idlib to be spared a slow death and instead to be wiped out quickly in a nuclear strike. “We call on all of you to drop a tactical nuclear bomb, one whose impact covers the entirety of Idlib, end to end, to mercifully spare us from this slow death. We’d like to die all at once, one death,” he said.

Britain’s special representative for Syria, Gareth Bayley, condemned the regime airstrikes, saying the reports of civilian casualties and the targeting of clinics and schools are credible. He accused the regime and Russia of being “in contravention of international humanitarian law.”

“This is appalling,” he added.

FILE - This photo provided by the Syrian Civil Def
This photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets shows Civil Defense workers using machinery to search through the rubble after airstrikes hit in Khan Sheikhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria, Sept, 24, 2017.

?Muted criticism

Condemnation by Western powers of the airstrikes on Idlib have been muted in comparison to the outcry regarding the regime’s bombing of Aleppo last year. There is deep anger among rebels, residents and humanitarian workers at the scant attention the air blitz has been receiving internationally - a sign, they say, of the West having given up on the revolution.

“While the world may be forgetting the Syria war, the war is not forgetting Syrians,” tweeted James Denselow of the charity Save the Children.

A European diplomat told VOA on condition of anonymity that a full-blown Western condemnation of the air blitz is “more difficult now than a year ago” — as some Western powers themselves are more compromised. “We are also involved in heavy airstrikes on the Islamic State in Raqqa and elsewhere, and although, I think, we take greater care to minimize civilian deaths than Assad or the Russians, we are certainly killing civilians as well.”

On Wednesday, the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, announced he hoped to convene the eighth round of peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in around a month. “I am calling on both sides to assess the situation with realism and responsibility to the people of Syria and to prepare seriously to participate in the Geneva talks,” de Mistura said at the U.N. Security Council.

The previous seven rounds of talks in Geneva failed to make any progress with Assad’s fate one of the main obstacles. Syrian opposition groups and various, albeit a dwindling number, of Western powers insist that Assad must go. But with the battlefield having turned to his favor — thanks to Russian and Iranian support — he has little motive to make any concessions.

A second process of negotiations overseen by Russia in the Kazakh capital, Astana, has led to the establishment of multiple ‘de-escalation zones.’ De Mistura says these zones should be a precursor “to a truly nationwide cease-fire.”

But there are no signs that the regime or Russia would be serious about Idlib becoming a de-escalation zone — not at this stage.

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