Idlib, Syria – Syrian government forces and Russia have stepped up their bombardment of northwestern Syria, killing dozens of people including children and wounding hundreds more, opposition leaders and volunteers said, at a time when Israel’s war on Gaza is capturing the world’s attention.

Russian and Syrian attacks in October focused on towns and villages in the Idlib and Aleppo countryside. According to a Syrian volunteer emergency rescue group, this escalation resulted in the deaths of a total of 66 civilians, including 23 children and 13 women, and left more than 270 injured, including 79 children and 47 women.

While the pace of air and artillery attacks in northwestern Syria has decreased since early November, Syrian regime forces have shifted their attention to targeting civilian vehicles with guided missiles.

The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, said its teams responded to 17 guided missile attacks by regime forces from the start of this year to November 8. These attacks resulted in the deaths of four civilians, including a White Helmets volunteer, and injuries to 15 civilians, including two children.

Idlib is the last province in Syria controlled by opposition fighters and has been governed by a ceasefire agreement between Turkey and Russia since March 5, 2020. However, this agreement is occasionally violated by Syrian government forces.

“The military escalation of the Assad regime, the Russians and the Iranians against civilians in northern Syria has not stopped for a single day, but is intensified and weakened from time to time depending on international, regional and local circumstances,” he told Mustafa al-Bakour, a leader of Syrian opposition groups in northwestern Syria, refers to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Bakour told Al Jazeera that Russia and the Syrian regime have exploited the world’s concerns over the war in Gaza to escalate in northwest Syria, aiming to pressure Turkey and Syrian opposition factions on issues such as the opening of the Gaza Strip international road between Syria and Turkey. The M4 and M5 are among the most important arteries for international trade in Syria, serving as a transport link connecting the country to Northern Europe, South Asia and the Arabian Gulf.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the latest escalation has displaced over 120,000 civilians from their towns and villages to shelters and camps near the Syrian-Turkish border.

“Based on the facts on the ground, I do not believe that conditions are suitable for military action by either side now or even in the near future,” al-Bakour said. “However, I do not rule out that al-Assad and Russian forces will continue to carry out bombing attacks on civilians in the liberated north of Syria.”

On November 6, Russian news agency Interfax quoted Admiral Vadim Kulit, deputy director of the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria, as saying that Russian air forces had carried out airstrikes on a drone camp in Idlib province that was allegedly used to attack Syrians be government controlled locations. Al-Bakour told Al Jazeera he rejected Russian claims that Syrian opposition groups had drones.

Military bases and strategic achievements

Since its military intervention in Syria in 2015, Russia has sought to establish numerous military bases on its ally’s territory, including the Hmeimim air base in the countryside of Latakia and a naval base in Tartus, the only Russian base in the Mediterranean.

“Russia’s intervention in Syria was not out of love for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but to gain strategic advantages that were previously beyond Russia’s reach, such as a military presence in the Middle East and, in particular, obtaining a naval base in the Mediterranean for surveillance NATO.” “The movements of forces,” said Turki Mustafa, an Idlib-based political analyst and historian.

Mustafa told Al Jazeera that in bombing towns and villages in northwestern Syria, Russia repeatedly claims to be fighting “terrorism,” but in reality aims to draw attention to itself as a major regional and international player, even at a cost the civilian population. “Given Moscow’s need for Ankara and its strategic role in several issues, especially the Ukrainian issue, I rule out Russia launching a ground military campaign in northwestern Syria,” Mustafa said.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented the killing of approximately 7,000 civilians, including 2,046 children and 978 women, by Russian forces alone since its military intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime began eight years ago.

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