At least 24 people have been killed and scores wounded across parts of rebel-held Syria after a weekend of violence that included several car bomb attacks.
Eleven people died and 30 more were injured in the town of Azaz, when a car bomb detonated on Sunday near a building used by Turkish-backed fighters as an administrative headquarters. Pictures from the scene showed black smoke rising from the mangled remains of the car, damaged buildings and a street covered in debris from the explosion.
Also on Sunday, another car bomb went off at a checkpoint near the town of Beza’a, killing five fighters from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella group and injuring another four, military sources said.
Ahmad Ali, 33, was passing by when the Azaz car bomb detonated about 100 metres away.
“It sounded like thunder, the doors and glass of the buildings around me shook and broke. As a first reaction I was on the floor and I was temporarily deaf from the tremendous sound,” he said.
“It happened in such a busy place, near the market and the building where people come to register births and marriages …. I saw the burnt car and rescuers trying to help, and the dead bodies. It was a horrifying day.”
After a decade of war, Syria is now roughly divided into three zones of control.
Around 3 million civilians, the majority of whom are afraid to return to their homes in regime-held areas, as well as the remains of the Syrian opposition, Turkish-backed Syrian forces and Islamist groups, are now crammed into the north-west corner of the country.
The oil and wheat producing north-east is controlled by Kurdish-led, US-backed forces, but most of Syria is now once again ruled again by Bashar al-Assad, who has clawed back all of the country’s major cities from the opposition with the help of Russia and Iran.
Sunday’s attacks added to an already violent weekend across parts of Syria outside regime control: on Saturday, the de-facto Turkish controlled town of Afrin was rocked by a car bomb which killed eight people, including four children.
On Sunday in Hasekeh, a town controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Kurdish security forces opened fire on pro-Syrian government demonstrators, killing one and injuring four.
The explosions in Azaz and Afrin were not claimed by any group, but the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has links to the SDF, is believed to be responsible for what Syrian Civil Defence statistics show is a growing number of IED, motorcycle and car bomb attacks in both cities.
Afrin was emptied of its majority Kurdish population after a 2018 offensive on the town by Turkey, while Azaz serves as the Turkish-backed forces’ administrative headquarters. Islamic State sleeper cells have also been linked to bombings in the area.
The Syrian Civil Defence, a volunteer rescue group operating in rebel-held parts of Syria also known as the White Helmets, says it has already responded to 13 explosions in the country’s north-west since the beginning of the year.
The surge in violence so far in 2021 adds to north-west Syria’s already severe wintertime problems: an increase in coronavirus cases is stretching an already broken healthcare system to breaking point, and heavy rains and flooding have affected 67,600 people living in displacement camps.