IDLIB -- Thousands of protesters in Syria's opposition-held Idlib province on Tuesday (March 15) marked 11 years since the start of the uprising against the regime, buoyed by the global outcry over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Gathered on the main square in the northwestern city of Idlib, more than 5,000 people took part in one of the largest rallies the region has seen in months.
Many demonstrators said they hoped the war in Ukraine launched by Russia, the Syrian regime's main backer, would rekindle interest in their cause.
"What is happening in Ukraine today is similar to the situation here; the enemy is the same and the goal is the same," said protester Radwan Atrash.
Thousands of demonstrators marked the date in other northern Syrian cities.
President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power held by a thread after a nationwide uprising that erupted March 15, 2011, escalated into a full-fledged war.
But Russian president Vladimir Putin's decision to intervene in support of the Syrian regime in 2015 changed the course of the conflict and kept al-Assad in power.
Al-Assad is among the few heads of state to openly support Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
'Remember Syrian suffering'
In a statement marking the war's 11th anniversary, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights offered a grim reminder of the human toll: 160,681 civilian deaths, including 25,286 children.
Of this number, it said, 49,359 civilians died under torture in Syrian regime prisons, 52,508 civilians were killed in shelling and gunfire by regime forces, and 26,403 civilians were killed in regime air strikes.
Russian bombardments were responsible for 8,683 civilian deaths, the Observatory said, with a further 2,504 civilians killed in air strikes carried out by either Russia or the Syrian regime.
The ongoing military operations have injured more than 2.1 million Syrian civilians, it said, and about 13 million civilians have been displaced.
Syria's infrastructure lies in ruins, with hospitals, schools, and private and public property substantially damaged or destroyed, the Observatory said.
Around four million people, at least half of them displaced, now live in the Idlib region -- the last enclave fighting al-Assad's rule despite years of deadly Russian-backed offensives.
'Fortify your hospitals'
Ukrainian flags were visible at the Idlib protest, as were banners expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian people and demanding action against Putin.
A medic among the protesters at the city's main roundabout had some advice for his counterparts in Ukraine.
"Fortify your hospitals with cement blocks; the enemy Putin does not distinguish among civilians, wounded people and fighters," said Ali Hamoush, who works at an Idlib hospital.
Russia has repeatedly targeted medical facilities in Syria, according to witnesses, medics and human rights groups.
According to the United Nations, more than 23 hospitals were hit by strikes between April and June 2019 alone, after Russia-backed Syrian regime forces launched an offensive in Idlib.
A pediatric hospital was hit by an apparent Russian strike in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol last week, fuelling accusations of war crimes against Putin.
As the conflict drags on, rights groups have pleaded for the international community not to forget Syria.
"While we look with shock and horror at what is unfolding in Ukraine, we are reminded of the intense and worsening suffering that the Syrian population has endured," Norwegian Refugee Council secretary general Jan Egeland said this week.
"One of the greatest human tragedies of our time has gotten worse over the last year in the shadow of crises elsewhere."
'Appalling Russian aggression'
Russian warplanes cruised the skies of northern Syria for a second day Wednesday, Asharq al-Awsat reported, stirring civilian fears of Russian raids returning.
About 40 sorties were carried out by Russian fighter jets over opposition-controlled areas of Idlib, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo, Idlib-based activists said.
"The coincidence of this year's anniversary with the appalling Russian aggression against Ukraine... highlights Russia's brutal and destructive behaviour in both conflicts," Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the United States said in a joint statement.
Moscow is currently recruiting thousands of fighters in Syria, from the regular army and from militias, to be put on standby for possible deployment in Ukraine.
The stiff resistance faced by invading Russian troops and Putin's growing pariah status appeared to galvanise the Idlib crowd.
"My message to the Ukrainian people is 'Don't give up'. Eleven years have passed, but we are undaunted, and God willing, victory is ours," said protester Salwa Abdelrahman.