Russia has bungled its intervention in the Syrian war by inadvertently empowering extremists in Idlib and failing to protect civilians in the last enclave outside the control of the regime, activists and observers say.
In September, Russia and Turkey negotiated a truce that was to have protected the Idlib region from a massive Syrian regime offensive.
But the accord has unravelled, with Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate, seizing full control of the region in January, and the civilian population suffering from oppression and lawlessness within the area and increasing bombardment from without.
Since the agreement came into effect, Idlib has seen Tahrir al-Sham expand "at the expense of other armed opposition groups that had a presence in the region", Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Diyaruna.
The agreement gave the extremist alliance more influence, he said, and enabled it to seize control of economic resources, levy taxes and control trade in essential goods such as food and petroleum products.
As a result, he said, Tahrir al-Sham has "become more powerful than it was before the implementation of the truce agreement, after it has been given a safe haven that allows it to consolidate its military and political presence".
The Idlib area also has become a safe haven for other extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and "Islamic State" (IS), al-Abdullah said.
'Truce was a failure'
"A quick comparison between the region in which the Russians intervened and the area where the international coalition intervened shows a huge difference in the reality on the ground," he said.
The international coalition supported the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in fighting IS and in restoring services to areas liberated from the group, he said.
These areas are run by local councils that provide services, aid and reconstruction work, he said, while Idlib has become a hotbed for extremists and residents suffer a lack of basic services.
"Civilians in the Idlib region believe the truce was a failure from day one, as most areas are still being shelled daily," Idlib activist Haisam al-Idlibi told Diyaruna.
Most of the bombardment has been targeting residential areas rather than Tahrir al-Sham positions, he said, with the intent of forcing civilians to move into the interior of the province in order to empty the area completely.
The cease-fire "was supposed to provide relief for civilians or ample supplies of basic goods, but the opposite happened and the aid does not ever enter the Idlib region", al-Idlibi said.
Most live below the poverty line with no sustenance or jobs, and prices have risen sharply because of the acute shortage of many basic commodities, he said.
Syrian state 'on verge of collapse'
Russian media continue to portray the country's intervention in Syria as an effort "that aims to help Syrians and defeat terrorism", Syrian lawyer Bashir al-Bassam told Diyaruna.
"But the facts on the ground clearly indicate otherwise," he said, noting that the only Russian achievement has been keeping Bashar al-Assad in power.
Meanwhile, the Syrian state is on the verge of collapse, he said, and Russia has not "intervened to support Syria's economy at all".
Regime-controlled areas are largely in the hands of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its affiliated militias, or the hands of the Syrian army, supported by Russia and Russian-backed militias, al-Bassam said.
"These militias directly follow the decisions of the Russian Command, not the Syrian Command, which refutes the Russian claims of supporting the Syrian state and its army," he said.
Russia's main concern at present is to secure the oil facilities it has put its hands on, in addition to a number of mines in the Syrian Badiya (desert) region and Badiyat Tadmor (Palmyra desert), he said.
Russia has secured long-term contracts for many of Syria's resources and seeks to invest in them and benefit from them for long periods, he added.