Conflict

Thousands Displaced as Clashes Intensify in Idlib, Northwestern Syria

Syria

Clashes between the Syrian Regime and Opposition groups have resulted in widespread displacement in the Greater Idlib Region. According to some estimates, over 100,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes since the beginning of May.

After months of gradual build-up, the Greater Idlib region in northern Syria is once again witnessing heavy clashes between the Syrian Army and Opposition groups. The latest Regime offensive, focused in northern Hama, came on the heels of the Syria Peace Talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana last month, following a well-established pattern of post-summit escalation.

Prior to the offensive, the southern Idlib and northern Hama countrysides were targeted by intense Regime airstrikes and artillery, with virtually every town, village and city hit, resulting in dozens of civilian deaths. The United Nations and the World Health Organisation warned that numerous healthcare facilities that they manage were struck during these attacks despite their locations being shared to prevent accidental targeting, leading to accusations that they were deliberately targeted. The increased danger has forced many aid groups to suspend their activities. Counter-shelling by Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has also been destructive, with over a dozen civilian casualties in Suqaylabiyah after repeated rocket attacks over the town.

In addition to growing civilian casualties, the renewed conflict has triggered mass displacement, with some 100,000 Syrians who sought shelter in southern Idlib now pushing north, stretching the already-meagre resources and aid available. Some major towns such as Kafr Nabudah, which has since been the scene of to-and-fro fighting between the Syrian army and HTS, were virtually emptied out of their people. Whether the residents will ever be able to return, nobody knows. The Regime, which has referred to such areas with the ghoulish name “ghost towns”, has since used the evacuations to justify unrestricted bombardment of the area.

The latest bout of fighting represents a breaking point for aid groups operating in Idlib. Many of them have already been wary of continued work in Idlib due to the HTS, which has habitually preyed on such organisations. Hostage-taking, kidnapping and extortion have all been common risks for providing aid to the people of Idlib. Increased militancy from ISIS cells in the region also represent an added layer of danger. For a group that positions itself as the protector of Idlib, the HTS has done a lot to discourage the means of supporting the local people.

For the HTS, however, neither that nor the latest bout of clashes seem to be a great source of concern. The group has used the clashes to position itself as the leader of the Opposition in Idlib even as most of the fighting takes place in areas that have traditionally been strongholds of other Turkish-backed rebels. Indeed, since the fighting started, the HTS has ramped up its propaganda by holding an interview with the group’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, near the frontlines. Dressed in combat fatigues and with regime helicopters in the background, Jolani clearly sought to show himself as an active leader while also dismissing the rumours of his incapacitation following a Russian airstrike some months earlier.

There is also an element of grand-standing with ISIS there. The Jolani interview came shortly after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who recently appeared in a video for the first time in five years. Baghdadi was sitting in an enclosed space, looking older and appearing to have gained weight, standing in contrast with the emaciated and gaunt appearance of his supporters coming out of ISIS holdouts in Baghuz.

With the northern Hama clashes expected to be limited to the region rather than pushing into the heart of Idlib, the HTS may continue to hold onto power. Faced with an enemy that claims to oppose the HTS while legitimising the group in every move it makes, it can afford to treat the war as a political exercise even as the lives of ordinary Syrians fall apart around them.lib

Image: AFP/Omar Haj Kadour