Pro-government forces are massing in the northwest of Syria for what is expected to be a large scale assault on the province of Idlib.
Pro-government forces are massing in the northwest of Syria for what is expected to be a large-scale assault on Idlib Province. Both the Syrian army and its Russian allies have already started shelling the area.
Idlib is the last remaining rebel-held area in the country, partly held by the former Al Qaeda-affiliate Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), which is predominately made up of Free Syrian Army groups. At least three million people are located in the province. Around half of these people have already been displaced from their homes by the war.
There are few remaining opposition areas to which people in Idlib could flee if and when the attack takes place, leading the United Nations to state that it may result in the “worst humanitarian catastrophe” of this century.
The sentiment was echoed by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who claimed any attack “would unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict.”
Government air raids and shelling of southern Idlib have already led to the flight of 30,000 people. If the anticipated scale of the attack is realised, the UN anticipates the displacement of up to 700,000 people. The majority of these refugees will be forced to head towards the Turkish border.
Despite grave warnings from the international community, Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to be deterred. Idlib is the final stronghold of many of those who oppose him, and they are hemmed in by the highways straddling the province. Any large attack would almost certainly shatter whatever defences remain and result in a strategic and territorial victory for Assad.
The main opposition NLF are fighting a war on multiple fronts. As airstrikes reign down on parts of the province, terrorists such as HTS are spending their time threatening civilians rather than defending them.
Assad has repeatedly claimed that he wants to clear the area of terrorists, though he fails to distinguish between opposition groups or acknowledge the presence of civilians. In an attempt to address this directly, Guterres has urged pro-government forces to “find a way in which it is possible to isolate terrorist groups and…create a situation in which civilians will not be the price paid to solve the problem in Idlib.”
History suggests he will not heed the advice. Waging chemical warfare that kills civilians is a tactic Assad has used repeatedly throughout the conflict. Late last year, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed government forces were behind the April 2017 attack involving the nerve agent Sarin on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib that killed over 80 people.
Even as their situation looks increasingly dire, Syrians throughout Idlib are refusing to succumb to threats or intimidation from any side. Last week, protests erupted across the province, with thousands taking to the streets to demand peace and their human rights.
The international community has responded in kind, calling on all sides in the conflict to respect the safety and security of the civilians caught up in the middle of it.
If the predictions of the UN are correct, Syria is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster greater than any seen since the start of the war.