ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — A Syrian commercial flight landed at Aleppo airport on Wednesday from Damascus, marking the resumption of domestic flights between Syria’s two largest cities for the first time since 2012 — even as nearby, the government’s onslaught continued with airstrikes reportedly hitting several rebel-held towns and villages.
The flight carrying Syrian officials and journalists was a symbolic message from President Bashar Assad’s government, days after its forces consolidated control over the northwestern province of Aleppo and seized the last segments of the strategic M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus. The motorway between Syria’s two biggest cities was being repaired and was scheduled to reopen in coming days, for the first time in eight years.
Backed by heavy Russian air strikes, government forces have for weeks been pushing a crushing military campaign to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province in northwestern Syria, the last rebel-held areas in the country.
The widening multi-front offensive has sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey in one of the biggest single displacements of the nine-year war. Escaping the bombs, many of them left with their belongings piled up on vehicles and are now staying in tents, in open fields and under trees in freezing temperaturesnear the Turkish border. The U.N. has put the number of those displaced since Dec. 1 at more than 900,000 civilians — more than half of them women and children.
Satellite images illustrated the staggering scale of the internal displacement, concentrated within a small space in the country’s northwest, near the border with Turkey.
The images from Colorado-based Maxar Technologies show an enormous number of refugee tents and shelters for internally displaced people near Kafaldin and Deir Hassan in Idlib province. A comparison with images of the same area taken a year ago shows the rapid expansion of informal camps, as hundreds of thousands of civilians scrambled to escape the onslaught. The images also show tents near the edge of a quarry in a nearby area.
The military campaign has killed hundreds of civilians and disrupted aid distribution, with the bitter winter compounding the suffering.
On Wednesday, opposition activists reported airstrikes and shelling on several rebel-held areas in the country’s northwest, mostly near the towns of Daret Azzeh and Atareb. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group, reported more than 120 airstrikes on the last rebel stronghold on Tuesday alone.
The Syrian Civil Defense, a group active in Idlib, reported that four civilians were killed and 18 were wounded in Tuesday’s airstrikes and shelling on several parts of Idlib.
The Syrian Air flight landed at Aleppo airport after a 40-minute flight from Damascus on Wednesday and was welcomed by a military band on the tarmac. Syrian warplanes flew low overhead in a show of force and celebration. Earlier in the day, Syrian Tourism Minister Rami Radwan Martini and Transport Minister Ali Hammoud opened the airport for business.
Hammoud said the opening of the airport is a “great joy” for Syrians and a “dream” for the ministry.
The airport has been closed since 2012 due to fighting, after Aleppo fell into rebel hands. Backed by Russia and Iran, the Syrian army drove the rebels from Aleppo in December 2016, after a crushing years-long siege and bombardment campaign. The airport opened briefly in 2017 to much fanfare but was closed again due to security concerns.
The government’s offensive in Idlib has strained ties between Ankara and Moscow, which support opposing sides of the Syria war but for the past few years have been closely coordinating their moves in Idlib province.
A truce reached between the two countries collapsed in late 2019, leading to the current Russian-backed offensive.
Turkey arms and trains the Syrian opposition and has sent thousands of troops and military reinforcements to Idlib in recent weeks in an effort to stem the Syrian government’s advances. That has led to rare clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops with fatalities on both sides.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that time was running up for Syrian government forces to retreat from Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and warned of an “imminent” Turkish intervention to force the retreat.
Erdogan spoke a day after a top Turkish official said talks between Russian and Turkish delegation meant to reduce tensions in Idlib did not yield a “satisfactory result” for Ankara. The official said however, that the sides agreed to continue talks.
Turkey is pressing Russia to force the Syrian government to retreat to positions they held before the advance in Idlib and Aleppo.
“We are delivering our final warnings. We have not reached the desired results as yet.” Erdogan said, addressing legislators from his ruling party in Parliament. “The operation in Idlib is a matter of time. We could enter (Idlib) suddenly one night.”
Reporting by Zeina Karam and Albert Aji; Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.
Image: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian officials and journalists disembark a Syrian commercial plane after it landed at Aleppo Airport, Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. The Syrian commercial flight on Wednesday from Damascus, marked the resumption of internal flights between Syria’s two largest cities for the first time since 2012. (SANA via AP)