Beirut: Syrian soldiers track the car through a viewfinder as it approaches a house in western Aleppo, the new frontline in the battle between the government and the rebels. There is something unusual about the scene.
"There are women driving. Why are they headed to a battlefield?" one of the troops asks over the radio. "She looks elderly," another replies. "It's clear she's coming to pack her belongings, then she's leaving."
Syrian army soldiers flash the victory sign in the Rashideen neighbourhood, in Aleppo province, Syria, on February 16.Credit:SANA
They watch the women gathering clothes and other personal items as they prepare to flee a regime advance in the village of Mizanaz, just east of the town of al-Atarib in western Aleppo.
Despite the clear identification and apparent hesitation from one soldier, the troops decide to shoot. "I am watching them, they are about to enter a house. Yallah! [Go] I am firing now," the first soldier says before rapid machine gunfire can be heard.
"Fire, fire, I am observing for you," replies the second. President Bashar al-Assad's regime is regularly accused of deliberate attacks on civilians – a war crime under international law – but rarely has there been such clear evidence of one.
Syrian troops celebrate an Aleppo province offensive. The military announced on February 16 that its troops had regained control of territories in north-western Syria “in record time,” vowing to continue to chase armed groups “wherever they are.”Credit:SANA/AP
The London Telegraph has published radio communications which may prove the Syrian army is targeting civilians in its latest campaign on the opposition-held north-west.
The recordings were made on February 11 by spotters at a nearby observatory, who managed to intercept the army's frequency in the area around Atarib. They were passed to the newspaper by independent activist group Macro Media Centre (MMC).
Last month, the newspaper published leaked recordings from the same group revealing the presence of Iranian and Afghan militias fighting with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force alongside the regime in northern Syria.
The soldiers heard in the recordings are from the Syrian army's 25th Division, a notorious elite special mission force known as the Tiger Forces. Local reports corresponding with the date and time of the radio communications suggest the women were killed in the shooting.
The Syrian government and its Russian allies are responsible for more than 90 per cent of civilian deaths since the start of the war in 2011.
Attacks on civilians form part of the government's strategy of terrorising local populations until they flee rebel-held areas, making them much easier to capture. The regime has also been found to hit vital civilian structures, such as bakeries, schools and hospitals, which has the effect of breaking down societies and forcing them to surrender more quickly.
The Syrian government and its Russian allies are responsible for more than 90 per cent of civilian deaths since the start of the war in 2011, according to figures from the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).
Some 70 to 75 per cent of them were victims of artillery or airforce shelling.
Nearly 300 civilians have been killed in attacks this year in north-west Syria, the United Nations said this week, with 93 per cent of the deaths caused by Syrian and Russian forces.
The UN stopped keeping a tally of the total number of dead in Syria when the number reached 400,000 in 2014. Using estimates provided by war monitors, the conflict has now claimed at least a million lives. It enters its 10th year next month, with no end in sight.
Russia has blocked almost all attempts to investigate possible Syrian government war crimes at the UN Security Council, where it has a veto.
Syria is also not signed up to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, meaning that it has not been possible to bring an international criminal case against Assad or his government.
"Throughout the war, the Syrian army and pro-regime militias repeatedly targeted civilians, including pregnant women by sniper fire," Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute and leading Syria expert, said.
"Yet this is the first clear evidence I have seen of such wilful targeting from the regime. These war crimes and targeting of civilians, simple displaced persons seeking to collect their belongings, is one reason civilians are fleeing from regime forces, rather than remaining in their homes or attempting to cross into regime-controlled areas."
Around 900,000 people – two-thirds of them women and children – have fled their homes, and many are now trapped between the closed Turkish border and advancing pro-government troops.
The recordings also show that Syrian forces have deliberately attacked Turkish posts in Idlib.
Turkey set up 12 "observation points" as agreed under a de-escalation deal for the last-remaining opposition stronghold of Idlib and adjacent western Aleppo, negotiated with Russia in 2018. In its latest push into opposition territory, the Syrian army overran most of the points and fired on others, in violation of the deal.
"Send me the co-ordinates of the Turkish post, Somar," an artillery officer asks his comrade, addressing him by name.
A signals officer replies: "It's in front of you to the left, Sobhi. 07215313." The co-ordinates relay a post manned by the Turkish military just a few kilometres from where the women were shot in Mizanaz.
There was an attempted artillery attack by the regime on the position not long after the February 12 radio communications.
The battle for Idlib has seen Assad’s army and Turkish forces engage directly for the first time. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given the Syrian government and its Russian backers until the end of the month to halt their advance.
"Syrian regime forces hit Turkish observation posts on multiple occasions, so the likelihood of these strikes being accidental diminished by the day, but it's still jarring to hear it stated so clearly," said Tsurkov.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said: "For sceptics in the general public, this should be a wake-up call about which actors are pushing escalation. It's also a humiliation for Russia, who Ankara still views as a potentially trustworthy party to the  Sochi agreement, which mandated the establishment of Turkish military posts inside Idlib."
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