Members of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army dropped leaflets over Idlib province on Thursday, warning civilians in the rebel-held territory that they should surrender as the brutal seven-year war reaches its conclusion.
The leaflets, dropped over the rural valleys near Idlib city, warned residents that it was time to cooperate with Assad’s forces if they wished to preserve their livelihoods.
“Your cooperation with the Syrian Arab Army will release you from the rule of militants and terrorists, and will preserve your and your families’ lives,” one of the leaflets read. “We call upon you to join local reconciliation (agreements) as many others in Syria have done. The fate of your family, children and future depend on your decision.”
The area in Northwestern Syria is one of the few remaining rebel strongholds as they fight to overthrow dictator Bashar al-Assad. The area is controlled by a number of insurgent militias, although the al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) are believed to have the largest presence in the area.
Assad’s forces have reclaimed sizeable territory across Syria in the past year with the backing of Russian forces, mainly in areas around the capital of Damascus and in the southwest region.
Humanitarian adviser to the United Nations Jan Egeland said on Thursday that Turkey, Russia, and Iran had all agreed to “do their utmost to avoid” further conflict in Idlib, but revealed that the U.N. was still making preparations for an exodus of refugees by asking Turkey to keep open its borders.
“The war cannot be allowed to go to Idlib,” he told reporters. “This war must end not in a bloodbath but in agreements.”
Meanwhile, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami chief Abdel Rahman warned that Syrian forces were already pummelling the area with heavy artillery and preparing reinforcements for potential conflict.
“The shelling is in preparation for a possible regime assault on that area,” he told the AP. “Regime reinforcements including equipment, soldiers, vehicles, and ammunition have been arriving since Tuesday.
Around 2.5 million people live in the Idlib province, including rebels and civilians who have fled en masse from other territories that reclaimed by Syrian troops. Last year, it was designated as one of four “de-escalation” zones across Syria where violence was intended to be reduced ahead of a nationwide ceasefire through a number of “reconciliatory agreements.”