The ongoing war in Syria will hit the nine-year mark on March 15, 2020. That is nine years of one rolling humanitarian catastrophe after another. Syria saw the use of chemical weapons – and the world did nothing. We saw civilian centers from hospitals to schools, to religious sights, targeted and bombed – and the world did nothing. Cries of genocide and ethnic cleansing began in Ghouta, continued in Aleppo, and moved from one city to the next – and the world did nothing. Today the worst levels of this violence and atrocity are centered upon Idlib – and once again, the world is doing nothing.
What Is Going on in Idlib Now
- Since December 1, 900,000 people have fled their homes in Idlib province in the face of the latest offensive from the Syrian government.
- Approximately half a million of these displaced people are children.
- This is the largest and fastest rate of displacement since the beginning of the fighting in Syria nine years ago.
- In one three-day span in February, 140,000 Syrians were displaced in Idlib.
- Video reports have captured chaotic scenes of traffic jams and upheaval along the roadways of Syria as long lines of refugees flee for their lives.
- The flight has taken shape in the midst of one of the harshest winters in recent Syrian memory.
Doctors with Syrian and international aid organizations tell stories of newborns and infants literally freezing or smothering to death as families try to keep the babies warm in the frigid conditions. Families are living in tents and caves.
At this point, civilians are not merely caught in the crossfire. Numerous reports and agencies tell of civilian dense locations being deliberately targeted and bombed by Syrian and Russian strikes. These include hospitals, schools, markets, and bakeries. In the final week of January, there were more than 200 airstrikes by Russian backed Syrian forces in northern Syria. Most of these were on civilian targets. In one series of strikes last week ten schools, including two nurseries, were hit by Syrian and Russian airstrikes. More than 50 hospitals and medical centers have gone out of service in the last nine months due to bombings and airstrikes.
In what may be the final organized fight of the civil war, Idlib is being utilized by the Assad regime and its allies to unleash unprecedented hell upon his enemies and non-loyalists. Idlib is being described as the bloodiest chapter of this tremendously bloody and violent conflict.
Basic Facts on Idlib
In the early days of the Syrian Civil War, it appeared that Syria’s President Assad would be overthrown. Then Russia and Iran entered the fight. Since 2015 Assad pushed back against the various forces aligned against him with a ruthlessness seldom witnessed in modern history. He was supported by his allies, most significantly Russian airpower. One by one the cities and strongholds occupied by rebel forces in the early days of the war fell to Assad and his allies. The fall of these cities and strongholds became the stories of atrocities and humanitarian disasters that the world has forgotten about all too quickly.
As the rebels were defeated forced displacement occurred among the occupants that remained in these cities. The survivors could commit to an oath of loyalty to the Assad regime or be relocated to another city. Many who chose the oath of loyalty to Assad found that it was not enough for the Syrian ruler. Widespread reports of imprisonment, torture, murder, and disappearances among those who swore loyalty to Assad in the reclaimed Syrian cities became known. The message became clear. Assad was seeking an unconditional victory. As he retook territory, any combatants whose loyalty was questioned by Assad faced severe repercussions – along with their family members.
Those that refused to swear loyalty to Assad were moved, often by bus, to another city or province according to the agreements within each city’s terms of surrender. Many of those people were moved several times over the course of the last five years as one city after another fell to Assad.
This was the pattern in places likes Homs, Aleppo, East Ghouta, Daraa and more. Fighting and violence, followed by atrocities and relentless bombing by the Syrian government and government-sponsored forces, then a surrender agreement with bus transfers of the populace to the next city. The next city the displaced populations arrived at was often the next target for Assad’s forces and allies.
The result of this strategy was a herding effect of all resisters to Assad, those who violently resisted and those who feared surrender to him. By the end of 2018, this massive population was effectively herded into the northwest corner of Syria in Idlib province where they lived until December 2019. The population of Idlib province prior to the Syrian Civil War was 1.5 million. In December the UN estimated the population of Idlib to be slightly more than 3 million people. More than half of this population were women and children.
A truce held the fighting in check. The world knew it was coming but for more than a year, the real violence anticipated for Idlib was held at bay. The truce broke in December.
The refugees of Idlib cannot move further north across the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey is already swelling with refugees from the Syrian Civil War and the Turkish government says they cannot take more. Idlib province has thus been transformed into a final corner into which the massive flight of millions of refugees is now penned.
Assad and Russia state that only terrorists occupy Idlib today. It is true that many of the terrorist groups who previously fought against Assad are now relocated to Idlib, but it is not true that the vast majority of Idlib’s residents are terrorists. Assad defines a terrorist as anyone who will not swear an oath of loyalty to his murderous regime. Most of the people in Idlib today who are fearing for their lives are women and children.
Idlib is seen as the last battle of the Syrian Civil War. It is not. The fighting here will never end. That is the inevitable result of a state that has dissolved into splinters held together by powers who use it for a proxy fight. That is what Syria is today. Assad is a figurehead for various powers from Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the EU to either support or oppose.
Learn more about Idlib and the Syrian Civil War
- What Caused the Syrian Civil War
- History of the Syrian Civil War Podcast Series
- Idlib – Last Battle of the Syrian Civil War?