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BEIRUT -- On Sunday, residents of a rebel-held pocket in northwestern Syria saw white leaflets drop from the sky, carrying a message from the government: It's time to leave.

The Russian Defense Ministry announced later in the day that it had set up three checkpoints for civilians to leave embattled Idlib province.

"Your safety lies in you leaving the areas of armed groups and heading toward official crossings that the government opened," the Syrian army leaflet said. The three crossings were opened Monday, and transportation and medical help will be made available, the message continued, while army units would soon deploy to "cleanse" the area.

The warning was issued on the day that a cease-fire brokered by Turkey and Russia took effect, as Russia and its allies promised to halt airstrikes. Russia has been Syrian President Bashar Assad's main ally, alongside Iran, during the war, which started in 2011 as a revolt against the government.

Turkey backs some rebel groups operating in Idlib and surrounding areas in Aleppo province. The main power in the area, however, is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a militant group that has been attempting to distance itself from its al-Qaida roots in recent years.

The cease-fire is the latest in a series of broken truces, and few expect the respite to last.

Artillery fire continued Monday, the head of the Idlib branch of the Syrian Civil Defense -- a volunteer organization more commonly known as the White Helmets -- told The Washington Post. "Today we have one martyr," Mustafa Hajj Youssef said, a result of artillery fired into the southern countryside of Idlib. Several people were wounded Sunday after the cease-fire had taken effect, he added.

Backed by Russian jets, Syrian forces struck towns in the northwestern rebel bastion in recent weeks, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. At least 300,000 civilians have fled their homes since mid-December, the United Nations estimated last week.

On Sunday afternoon, Russia said civilians can leave the de-escalation area in Idlib through the three new checkpoints, Russia's Interfax news agency said. The de-escalation zone refers to a demilitarized area set up after a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran in 2017.

A Syrian-led offensive is not the only crisis looming over Idlib: Over the weekend, the U.N. Security Council renewed a resolution that allows for cross-border aid, but halved the period of the mandate.

Over the past few years, Idlib has become the government's dumping ground to relocate civilians and fighters from former rebel-held areas. It has repeatedly piled people onto buses and sent them to the province.

"There is no Idlib for Idlib" is an oft-repeated phrase when discussing the humanitarian toll of a military offensive in the area because there is no place that can take in the flow of those displaced from there.

The reauthorization of the cross-border U.N. aid operation, which had lasted six years, was put to a vote in December. It was vetoed by Russia and China, another supporter of Assad's government. On Friday, the reauthorization resolution was put to a vote again, with amendments. Only two of four designated border crossings, both lying on the Turkish-Syrian border, were reauthorized, and only for six months. The two other crossings, on the Iraqi and Jordanian borders, were dropped.

The International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental aid organization, warned that the removal of the Yaroubiya crossing along the border with Iraq will "immediately halt critical medical supplies and disrupt at least half of the health-care response in northeast Syria."

Information for this article was contributed by Asser Khattab of The Washington Post.

A Section on 01/14/2020

Print Headline: Get out, Syrians told at truce start

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