Syrian regime forces shelled opposition and extremist positions in the northwestern province of Idlib on Thursday (August 9th) as the UN called for urgent negotiations to avoid "a civilian bloodbath" in Syria's last major opposition bastion.
On Thursday, government helicopters dropped leaflets over towns in Idlib's eastern countryside urging people to surrender, an AFP correspondent said.
"We are calling on you to join the local reconciliations, as many of our people in Syria did," said the leaflets, which were stamped with the military's seal.
Such surrender deals typically see opposition groups hand over territory to government troops in exchange for a halt to shelling, the return of state institutions, and a chance to either join regime forces or be bussed out of the area.
Heavy artillery and rocket fire on Thursday morning slammed into territory around Jisr al-Shughur, a key town in the southwestern part of the province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"The shelling is in preparation for an assault but there has been no ground advance yet," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
"Regime reinforcements including equipment, soldiers, vehicles and ammunition have been arriving since Tuesday," he said.
They were being distributed along three regime-held fronts, including in neighbouring Latakia province just west of Jisr al-Shughur, in the Sahl al-Ghab plain south of Idlib, and in a sliver of the province's southeast that is already in government hands.
Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, also reported on Thursday that army troops had bombed opposition and extremist positions in the area.
Idlib, which has escaped regime control since 2015, lies along the border with Turkey but is otherwise nearly completely surrounded by government-held territory.
Around 60% of it is now held by extremist alliance Tahrir al-Sham, while the rest is controlled by rival opposition factions.
UN warns of Idlib 'bloodbath'
Negotiations are urgently needed to avert "a civilian bloodbath" in Idlib, the UN said Thursday.
"The war cannot be allowed to go to Idlib," the head of the UN humanitarian taskforce for Syria, Jan Egeland, told reporters in Geneva.
Egeland said he remained "hopeful" that diplomatic efforts underway could stave off a major ground offensive that would force hundreds of thousands to flee.
"It is bad now" in Idlib, Egeland said. "It could be 100 times worse."
A major military operation in Idlib would pose a particular humanitarian nightmare because there is no opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to, Egeland said.
"I cannot see evacuations to other opposition-controlled areas," he said, explaining that contingency plans were being formed to deal with a range of scenarios.
At Thursday's humanitarian taskforce meeting, ambassadors discussed options to ramp up assistance in the event of additional massive displacement, Egeland said, noting that "it is very hard to take on more mouths to feed and there is no (additional) shelter available" in the area.
Egeland said the string of surrender deals brokered elsewhere during the Syrian conflict could be applied in Idlib to save civilian lives.
Tahrir al-Sham has been arresting dozens of figures in the province that have been go-betweens with the regime.
Early Thursday, the group detained several such figures from villages in Idlib's southeast, calling them "chiefs of treason", according to a Tahrir al-Sham-linked media agency.
The Observatory said it had documented more than 100 such arrests by the alliance and rival forces this week alone.
Idlib province is home to around 2.5 million people, including opposition fighters and civilians transferred en masse from other territory that fell to Syrian troops after intense assaults.
It was designated last year as one of four "de-escalation" zones where violence was supposed to be reduced ahead of a nationwide ceasefire.
It is the only such zone left, after Assad's troops in recent months recaptured the other three with a blend of military assaults and "reconciliation" deals.