Some 4 million civilians are estimated to be trapped in Idlib, a city and province in north-east Syria, with no option to escape since Turkey closed its borders. The area was taken over by militias opposed to the Syrian regime in 2017, becoming the seat of the so-called Syrian Salvation Government. It has been closed off since the beginning of the April 2019 Syrian-Russian military alliance’s offensive, and the Syrians government has repeatedly stated it intends to retake the whole region.
The government’s main objectives in April 2019 were to open the M5 highway and to expel militant groups, particularly the al-Qaeda-linked group known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, from the 15-20km demilitarized zone demarcated by Turkey and Russia in 2018. Although no major advancement was made by the Syrian-Russian alliance, git continues to bomb the city.
Since 15 December 2019, Russian and Syrian warplanes have re-escalated their bombing campaign in the south of the province, backed up by a ground offensive. Government forces are pushing towards the M5 highway, which connects southern Syria with the city of Aleppo. More than 1,000 civilians have been killed and 600,000 more have fled the fighting since April when government forces seized areas further south, including the city of Khan Sheikhoun. More than 200,000 people, many of them already internally displaced )from other parts of the country reclaimed by regime forces and their allies, fled towards the Syrian-Turkish border.
“The situation in Idlib is catastrophic,” Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher for the international organization Human Rights Watch, told Fanack. “You have 4 million civilians trapped in the area, with the Syrian-Russian military alliance bombarding them relentlessly since April 2019, with no end in sight and no ability to escape given that the Turkish border remains closed to those fleeing the violence.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Europe on 22 December that his country cannot handle a new wave of Syrian refugees, adding that over 80,000 people from Idlib had fled to areas near the Turkish border. According to Turkish authorities, Turkey already hosts around 5 million refugees, of which 3.7 million are Syrians.
Erdogan’s comments directly targeted the EU-Turkey refugee agreement struck in March 2016. The agreementnt seeks to control the crossing of refugees and migrants from Turkey to the Greek islands, and was initially intended to curb the large numbers of refugees arriving in Europe – or losing their lives on the way – in 2015. Every person arriving irregularly to the Greek islands, including asylum-seekers, would be returned to Turkey. In exchange, EU member states would take one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian returned from the islands.
In the meantime, those trapped in Idlib are facing a gruesome fate if nothing is done to help them. “The relentless and often indiscriminate bombardment by the Syrian-Russian military alliance using prohibited weapons like cluster munitions, and targeting protected civilian areas like hospitals, schools and displacement centres, has not only resulted in an unprecedented number of innocent lives lostd. It has also made the humanitarian situation in the province dire,” Kayyali said. “In Idlib, if you are not killed by a bomb, you may freeze or starve to death due to hunger and lack of shelter. This is the reality of the province now. Unless Turkey opens the border to civilians fleeing the violence, and the international community takes responsibility and prevents the Syrian-Russian military alliance from eroding civilian protection even further, then I am afraid that the writing on the wall is very clear, and we will be witnessing a man-made tragedy unfold before our eyes.”
In a statement made on 7 January 2020, Mark Cutts, the United Nations deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, said, “This latest wave of displacement compounds an already dire situation in Idlib – a densely populated governorate already hosting displaced people from all over Syria. An additional 400,000 people in southern Idlib were displaced and at least 1,300 civilians were killed by air strikes and shelling between May and August last year. This brings the total number of people displaced by fighting in Idlib in the last eight months to over 700,000. Every day, we receive more disturbing reports of families caught up in the violence, seeking refuge and access to essential services in overcrowded camps and urban areas. Many are now sheltering in schools, mosques and other public buildings. Critical shortages of food, shelter, health and winterization assistance, as well as other basic services required for survival, are being reported across Idlib.”
Cutts also explained that humanitarian organizations have a hard time offering assistance, like health-related services, due to the offensive. “At least 13 health facilities in Idlib have recently been forced to suspend their operations due to the security situation, exacerbating the suffering of the local population and heightening levels of vulnerability.”
A new ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey, which support opposing sides in Syria’s nearly nine-year conflict, went into effect on 12 January, but violence has continued, according to rescue workers in opposition-held areas.
“The Syrian conflict has been defined by the absolute disregard for civilian protection and basic tenets of humanity by almost all parties to the conflict,” Kayyali said. “We have seen the pattern of unlawful attacks on civilians in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and elsewhere, and we have failed to stop it. Today, that pattern is being repeated in Idlib, and it remains the only opportunity to shift this narrative. Thus far, we are failing to do so.”