At the onset of December 2019, the Syrian regular forces and their allies made overcrowded marketplaces in the province of Idlib the focus of their assaults, especially those conducted in the cities and towns in southern rural Idlib—ones located near the M5 International Highway, which connects Damascus and Aleppo while passing through the province of Idlib. Covering the period from early December 2019 through early January 2020, Syrians for Truth and Justice/STJ has monitored four brutal attacks on jammed marketplaces, particularly those in Jabal al-Zawiyah, adjacent to the reported highway, which took a toll on several civilians, including women and children.
On December 7, 2019, alone, two violent attacks took place: The first was aimed at a marketplace in the town of Baluon, a market designated for clothes, where warplanes, believed to be Russian, launched a missile that landed in the center of the marketplace, putting to death nine civilians and injuring 12 others, among whom were both women and children.
The second attack, however, targeted the marketplace in the town of al-Bara, where fruits and vegetables are sold, for warplanes, also believed to be Russian, have embarked on four successive raids on the marketplace, rendering four civilians dead, including a child and two women, effecting also a massive material damage that befell several civilian homes in the vicinity of the targeted marketplace.
On December 2, 2019, two additional attacks were documented: The first was launched against the marketplace in the city of Saraqib, rendering dead a civilian and injuring five others. The second attack was carried out less than two hours later, hitting the marketplace in the city of Ma`arat al-Nu`man, which brought nine civilians to their death and wounded 12 others.
While the four assaults were monitored and recorded, it became evident that the attacked marketplaces were being targeted either in the morning or at noon, meaning the hours corresponding to the major commercial activity during the day and overcrowdedness on the part of civilians, not to mention that the attacks’ sites are clear of any nearby military presence.
In total, the attacks caused the displacement of tens of thousands of locals to northern border areas, which in one way or another indicates the Syrian regular forces’ intention at emptying these areas of their residents and sending them away from their houses in a step to hold the reins to power there, specifically in the areas located near the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway, known as the M5.
It is also likely that the Syrian Regular forces and their allies have focused their attacks on marketplaces full of civilian crowds in the province of Idlib to enforce further economic restrictions on the populace, in an attempt at imposing what sounds like economic sanctions on the locals in retaliation to the sanctions imposed on the central government in Damascus.
STJ has also monitored two separate attacks which took a toll on 10 children, for one of these assaults has affected a house belonging to a civilian based in the town of Abadeta, located on the M5 International Highway, which connects Damascus and Aleppo, on December 7, 2019, namely the day on which the two marketplaces in the towns of Baluon and al-Bara were bombarded, causing the death of a family, which consisted mostly of children.
On January 1, 2020, another assault targeted the Elementary School of Martyr Abdo Salameh in the city of Sarmin, also reputed for being adjacent to the M5 International Highway. This attack rendered nine civilians dead, mostly women and children, in addition to injuring 15 others, some of whom had critical wounds.
These brutal assaults, carried out by the Syrian regular forces and their allies against the cities and towns of southern rural Idlib, corresponded to equally violent clashes between the forces and armed opposition groups, some of which are internationally listed as terrorist groups. This callous escalation took place a few days after the armed groups’, functioning under the al-Fath al-Mubeen Operations Room, declaration of the Wala Tahinu/So Do Not Be Weak battle on November 29, 2019. As the battle was waged, the armed opposition groups managed to take over the towns and villages of Iejaz, Isttablat, Sam al-Ward and Srouj in south-eastern rural Idlib at the disadvantage of the Syrian regular forces on 30 November 2019, for the latter’s casualties included both arms and personnel. However, the Syrian regular forces managed to win over the towns and villages they lost on December 10, 2019, continuing to advance until they controlled the villages of Um al-Tineh, the Abandoned Division, Abu Habeh, al-Tah, Jarjanaz, al-Rafeh and al-Hraki in late December 2019, after violent confrontations with the involved armed opposition groups, which synced with other battles between the two sides on the al-Kabineh and Talet al-Hadadeen’s front in rural Latakia.
The escalation is a continuation of the offensive that the Syrian regular forces and their allies initiated against the province of Idlib in April 2019, which STJ covered with a report documenting the death and injury of several civilians during hostile attacks on areas and towns in the southern rural parts of the province.
On January 7, 2020, the United Nations/UN reported that since mid-December 2019, no less than 300,000 civilians have escaped their houses in southern Idlib due to an acute escalation of hostilities, in addition to other 1300 civilians, at least, who died due to airstrikes or shelling through May and August 2019.
Image no. (1) – map showing the distribution of military power in the province of Idlib as far as January 9, 2020.
In total, this report is based on (16) testimonies and interviews conducted with eyewitnesses either online or in person by STJ’s female researcher in the province of Idlib between early December 2019 and early January 2020, in addition to referencing numerous open sources that document the incidents mentioned here.
1. Aiming Assaults Specifically at Marketplaces as a Means to Impose Economic Restrictions on the Locals
STJ has documented four attacks on marketplaces, crowded with civilians, in the towns and villages of rural Idlib, especially those located in the southern parts of the province, near the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway, named M5. The four attacks were carried out over two days, for on December 7, 2019 alone, two violent attacks hit the marketplaces in the two towns of Baluon and al-Bara.
Two other attacks were carried out on December 2, 2019, one of which targeted a marketplace in the city of Saraqib while the other, conducted less than two hours later, aimed at the marketplace in the city of Ma`arat al-Nu`man
STJ’s field researcher pointed out that the shelling that targeted the four marketplaces in rural Idlib might have been the Syrian regular forces and their allies’ attempt at taking revenge, especially since the assaults took place a few days following their failure at achieving any progress on the fronts in the southern and eastern rural parts of Idlib, in addition to the casualties they were doomed to have, which included the death of personnel and the destruction of vehicles during the clashes that brought them together with armed opposition groups on the mentioned fronts.
The researcher added that the repeated targeting of marketplaces, overcrowded with civilians, in the province of Idlib had most likely sought to basically impose economic restrictions on the province’s population, which resembles placing the population under a set of economic sanctions. The second derive, according to the researcher, was the attempt at evacuating the target areas of their residents and sending them on a flight of displacement in a step to claim power there, particularly in the areas located on the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway.
It was noted that the four assaults carried out on the 2nd and the 7th of December 2019 were initiated only a few days before the 14th round of the Astana Talks was held at the capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan, on December 10, 2019, which witnessed the participation of the three guarantor states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, that tackled the on-ground reality in Syria with a focus on the areas east of the Euphrates and Idlib.
A. Violent Attack on a Marketplace in Baluon Town
The town of Baluon lies at the heart of Jabal al-Zawiyah, southern rural Idlib, near the M5 International Highway that connects Damascus with Aleppo. It is administratively affiliated with the district of Ihsim—13 kilometers to the north-western parts of it— and it is considered one of the areas that incubate the largest number of internally displaced persons, who sought it from the southern and eastern rural parts of Idlib and rural Hama. Today, the town is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/HTS.
At noon, on December 7, 2019, the town was a target to aerial shelling, carried out by warplanes, believed to be Russian. The attack directly aimed at the town’s marketplace, designated for clothes, which back then was overcrowded with civilians, rendering nine of them dead and leaving 12 others wounded. According to testimonies obtained by STJ from several of the town’s locals, the attack has triggered fear and horror within the people, forcing them to seek refuge at safer areas. About 10% of the town’s population was displaced, for the attack, according to STJ’s field researcher, has possibly sought to evacuate the area of its residents, displacing them to border areas.
Details of the Attack
Around 1:54 pm, on December 7, 2019, warplanes, believed to be Russian, embarked on a raid, hitting the center of Baluon’s marketplace with a missile that rendered many civilians dead, including children and women, who went to the market to purchase their needs. On this note, Ismail al-Hamadee, a relative of one of the people who died in the attack, recounted the following:
“The first raid took place around 1:45 pm, targeting the northern outskirts of the town of Baluon. Another raid was carried out with a single missile that directly hit the center of Baluon’s marketplace. Due to the latter raid, my uncle’s family members were all dead, including Abdo Ahmad al-Hamadee, a 85-year-old modest farmer, and Mohammad Abdo al-Hamadee, 50-year-old, along with his three children— the 13-year-old girl Aya, the 10-year-old Hassan Mohammad al-Hamadee and the 8-year-old boy Bilal Mohammad al-Hamadee. They all got killed; none of them was left but my cousin Abdo Mohammad Deeb al-Hamadee, 17-year-old, who was rushed to the hospital and is yet suffering face burns and leg-bone fractures, in addition to other problems with the urinary tract system.”
The airstrike, the eyewitnesses added, has coerced many of the town’s residents to abandon it, especially since it has not been a target to bombardment for about three years.
 Of these armed groups are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/HTS, the National Front for Liberation/NFL and the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army.
 “Syria: Violent Airstrikes Take Toll on Civilians, including Children, in Southern Rural Idlib.” STJ, September 2, 2019. Last visited: January 26, 2020. https://stj-sy.org/en/syria-violent-airstrikes-take-toll-on-civilians-including-children-in-southern-rural-idlib/.
 “14th Round of Astana Talks on Syria Kicks off.” Russia Today, December 10, 2019. Last visited: January 26, 2020. https://arabic.rt.com/middle_east/1067069-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8014-%D9%84%D9%80%D9%85%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%AB%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A3%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%A7-%D8%AD%D9%88%D9%84-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7/.