The streets of one of the first towns to rise up against the Syrian regime lie empty and broken after most of its residents fled an expected advance by Russia-backed Syrian forces.

The retaking of Maraat al-Numan in Idlib province would be a deeply symbolic victory for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad almost nine years after it fell under rebel control.

Footage filmed for Sky News from the town shows the scars of war, with shattered buildings, battered shop fronts and rubble-strewn roads.

Battles around Maraat al-Numan have caused more people to flee
Image: Battles around Maraat al Numan have caused more people to flee

One former rebel fighter sounded desperate.

“We’re not scared for our belongings or our homes…but our country,” said Tariq Shardoub.

“We’re crying tears of blood over our country. We have our memories and our people. Our hands are bleeding from building trenches. Where are the people? Where are the heroes?”

More than a quarter of a million people have fled the town and the surrounding areas over the past fortnight, according to the United Nations’ humanitarian co-ordination agency OCHA.

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More than 80% of the evacuees are women and children, a spokesman said.

'Where are the heroes?': People flee as Assad closes on final rebel-held stronghold - EpicNews

Our hands are bleeding from building trenches. Where are the people? Where are the heroes?

Former rebel fighter

Footage of the exodus shows pick-up trucks, cars and other vehicles carrying families and their belongings. Some left with only the clothes on their backs.

They are moving out of the southern part of Idlib province towards what are seen as safer places further north.

Many have been forced to shelter in makeshift camps. A number are without tents.

At one camp, a little boy stood outside in bare feet, despite the winter cold.

A young girl could be seen holding a baby wrapped in a blanket.

Battles around Maraat al-Numan have caused more people to flee
Image: Battles around Maraat al Numan have caused more people to flee

The old are also suffering.

One woman, her face wrinkled with age, said the situation was dire.

“We’ve been here for three days under the rain,” Um Yasser said.

“I had to leave my medicine back at home so I’m not able to walk so they’ve had to push me around [in my wheelchair]… it’s a huge problem. There were lots of strikes. Lots of destruction. We’ve had more than enough. More than enough.”

Since mid-December, regime forces and their Russian allies have heightened bombardment on the southern edge of the province, the final major opposition-held pocket of Syria.

Some three million people, including many displaced from other parts of Syria, live in Idlib.

The province is dominated by the country’s former al Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al Sham. Its chief this week urged followers and allied rebels to head to the frontlines and fight “the Russian occupiers” and the regime.

Battles around Maraat al-Numan have caused more people to flee as winter sets in
Image: This man is trying to keep the cold weather out of a tent at the displacement camp

OCHA said ensuing battles around Maraat al-Numan have caused more people to flee.

The crisis is unfolding as cold weather and heavy rainfall make displacement camps even more desperate.

A Syrian opposition leader called on the international community to help broker a lasting ceasefire between the warring sides.

“The military escalation is still ongoing and rising, we have a humanitarian crisis in every sense of the word,” Nasr Hariri told reporters in Istanbul.

“The number of displaced people has exceeded 220,000, they are civilians and most of them are women and children, in such difficult circumstances in the winter.”

Battles around Maraat al-Numan have caused more people to flee
Image: Some three million people, including many displaced from other parts of Syria, live in Idlib

Western powers, including the United States and Britain, supported the uprising against President Assad in 2011. But they are not key players anymore.

US President Donald Trump seemed to be counting on his Turkish counterpart.

He wrote on Twitter on Thursday: “Russia, Syria, and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands of innocent civilians in Idlib Province. Don’t do it! Turkey is working hard to stop this carnage.”

The escalation in fighting has forced aid groups to suspend operations in the area, exasperating already dire humanitarian conditions, OCHA said.

Idlib’s residents mainly depend on cross-border aid, which came under threat last week after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended such deliveries for a year.

The move raised fears that vital UN-funded aid could stop entering Idlib from January unless an alternative agreement is reached.