Residents in parts of Syria have been experiencing some of the most terrifying days of their seven-year-long war.
This week, the Syrian government and its Russian ally pummeled towns and villages in the opposition-held northern Syrian province of Idlib with air attacks. A relentless series of payloads were dropped in the space of just a few hours in the darkness of Sunday night.
The dead are still being counted. Residents say dozens of people are missing under the rubble of collapsed buildings.
Airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta, the besieged rebel-held suburbs outside Damascus, are ongoing. More than 100 people have been killed in the past 48 hours alone, according to residents and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
This is not just the unfortunate collateral damage of war, say analysts — but a sign that civilians themselves are the targets.
“It’s clear these attacks are part of a systematic strategy in order to basically punish civilians,” said Haid Haid, an analyst with the British think tank Chatham House.
Hassan Hassan, a Syria analyst and author, agreed that civilians are the focus of these attacks. “Most of the airstrikes have not hit front lines,” he said.
Instead, the air campaign appears focused on residential buildings and hospitals.
On Monday, Raed Fares, an activist in Kafranbel, an opposition-held town about 8 miles from the nearest front line in Idlib province, said he woke up to bombing raids on the local hospital.
“In the early morning, they attacked the hospital here four times. It’s very close to my house, and it was so horrible to wake up to this sound,” he says. “Everything was shaking.”
Fares shared photographs on his Facebook page of the hospital building, with its roof caved in, and of an ambulance destroyed by shrapnel.
This was the second hospital reported to have been hit in 48 hours. Residents of Maaret al-Numan, another town in Idlib province, shared videos of premature babies struggling for breath after they had to be ripped out of incubators to be rescued from a hospital damaged by a plane’s payload.
Russian warplane down
There have also been reports of chlorine gas attacks. Doctors in the town of Saraqeb, in Idlib, reported treating 11 patients who suffered from the suffocating symptoms of the chemical weapon.
These attacks have been interpreted partly as a response to the rebel downing of a Russian Su-25 plane Saturday near Saraqeb. The Russian pilot ejected from the plane and was shot dead by militants, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the attacks “precision strikes,” according to Russia’s TASS news agency, and said they were “provoked by the tragic event when terrorists shot down our plane.”
But analysts also see these attacks as an attempt to punish opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad by targeting towns and villages in Syria that are sympathetic to the opposition.
Last month, the Syrian opposition decided to boycott peace talks hosted by Russia in the Black Sea city of Sochi.
Hassan, the Syrian analyst, said the boycott was a major blow for the Russians.
“Sochi was envisioned by Russia to be a milestone, at least as a public relations stunt, to say, ‘Not only did we defeat ISIS,’ as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin announced inside Syria at the Hmeimim air base, but also, ‘we have managed to steer the politics in Syria as well,’ ” he said.
With these air attacks, Hassan said, Russia may be “trying to show [the opposition] that ‘this is the result of not bowing to our demands.’ ”
The Syrian regime and its Russian ally have repeatedly said they are targeting Islamist extremists and al-Qaida. But, Hassan said, this spate of bombardments has focused on towns in Idlib where residents have rejected the more-militant groups and have shown allegiance to the moderate anti-government opposition.
Take Kafranbel, the hometown of the activist Fares. It has repeatedly rejected al-Qaida’s rule.
“Kafranbel is the civil face of the revolution, and it’s democratic,” Fares said. “Russia and the Syrian regime want to paint all of Idlib as being the black of extremists,” he added, referring to the black flags used by groups like Islamic State. “But Kafranbel is green and civil,” he said, referring to a color on the Syrian opposition flag.
Hassan emphasized the potential for symbolism in recent airstrikes: “If Russia wants to strike against the Syrian opposition and show them the costs of not playing along,” he said, “it makes sense because in striking these areas, they strike the symbols of the Syrian revolution.”