As the military fight against ISIS in southeastern Syria is beginning to wind down, a showdown to the northwest is likely to heat up.
Idlib is the last major city in Syria still under control by rebel and jihadi groups, and it has been besieged for almost a year.
While the fight against ISIS has dominated media coverage of the war in Syria, almost 500 civilians have been killed by constant Russian and Syrian shelling. Islamic Relief, a international non-governmental organization working inside Idlib, estimates that 40,000 Syrians have been displaced per month in Idlib.
Three million civilians are living inside the rebel-held territory of Idlib and northern Hama, trapped between a Syrian state hellbent on retaking lost territory and a Turkish-backed group of rebels who may make Idlib their last stand.
A last-minute demilitarization deal signed by Turkey and Russia, who backs the Syrian regime, spared the region from an all-out assault but it did not stop the Syrian regime from targeting civilian centers inside Idlib, nor did it prevent the assault from happening eventually.
With humanitarian conditions worsening inside Idlib, the assault may bring about Syria’s worst human catastrophe yet.
Wracked by Bombings
Near Idlib (AFP/FILE)
Across all of Syria, about 450 civilians have died since the beginning of 2018, but many of those deaths have been clustered inside the rebel and jihadi territory of Idlib and northern Hama. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, about 156 civilians including 60 children have been killed by shelling by Syrian regime-allied forces.
Many of those victimized by the ongoing siege of Idlib have endured years of violence displacing them continuously. For them, Idlib is their last refuge.
Um Hadeel is one of the three million inside northwestern Syria waiting for the looming battle to retake Idlib. She is a widow who lives with her eight children inside a cramped tent in Idlib. Her husband was killed when Latamna, a suburb in northern Hama was shelled.
Um Hadeel says she fears she will have to marry her daughters away to men to make sure they are able to eat, like many of her widowed friends have already been forced to do.
Syrian and Russian forces appear to be disproportionately targeting civilian population centers and towns 20-100 kilometers beyond the frontlines. In particular, the towns of Kafr Zeita, Khan Sheikhoun and Kafr Nobl have been among the hardest hit. On April 4 2017, Khan Sheikhoun was bombed with canisters that contained sarin, a lethal chemical substance that killed upwards of 100 civilians. A subsequent investigation by the U.N. found the Syrian regime responsible for the attack.
Now, residents of Khan Sheikhoun live under constant threat of daily shelling by the regime.
Hassan in Syria (Islamic Relief)
Thirteen year-old Hassan lives with his family in Kafr kalbin, a camp for internally displaced Syrians in Idlib. His father, Abu Khaled, said “The warplanes and cannons they never hit the frontlines. Warplanes never hit the frontlines, they hit the civilians… I swear to God, the bodies in the streets were too many to count.” In one attack, Hassan’s leg was broken and has been unable to heal due to the lack of medical care in the region.
Orlaith Minogue, a conflict and humanitarian policy advisor for Save the Children, told Al Bawaba, “The fragile de-militarization agreement in place in North West Syria is at risk of collapsing into renewed conflict, which would endanger the lives of almost 3 million people in Idlib who have nowhere else to go.”
“The combination of ongoing conflict, high levels of displacement and limited services has made Idlib’s children some of the most vulnerable in the country.”
Although the demilitarization deal has not protected Syrian civilians from constant shelling, there are signs that it may fall apart completely in the face of a ground assault by Syrian forces.
“Idlib is coming back under the Syrian government’s control,” Mohammed Khair Akkam, a Syrian MP said. “Maybe not tomorrow or the day after, but the battle is drawing nearer.”
Putin is also reportedly losing patience with Turkey’s leader Recep Erdogan for his inability to fully exert control over the jihadi groups operating inside Idlib. A key part of the demilitarization deal was the agreement that Turkey would remove jihadi groups’ heavy weapons from areas near the frontline. But as rebel groups continue to shell Syrian forces from afar, it is clear Turkey was not able to uphold that part of the deal.
Idlib is a ticking time-bomb, and the U.N. warns that setting it off will trigger the “worst-scale humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.”
For their part, Turkey is involved in policing and controlling the activity inside Idlib for domestic reasons. Erdogan’s government has determined it cannot take in any more refugees, and if an Idlib offensive would occur, millions of desperate Syrians would flee towards Turkey. To pre-empt this possibility, Turkey has closed off its border with Syria and maintains a heavy armed presence near the frontlines to prevent an assault.
“People are starting to hate Turkey for not defending them in the face of these attacks,” said Abdulaziz Ketaz, an activist currently in Idlib. “There is also a growing resentment against HTS [Hayat Tahrir al-Sham], as it is responsible for this debacle.”
The Shadow War Between HTS and ISIS
Aftermath of two bombs that rocked Idlib in Feb (AFP/FILE)
On top of the shelling and the threat of an assault, Syrians trapped inside Idlib must face an ongoing clash between HTS and ISIS. HTS is the main umbrella jihadi group that controls the vast majority of territory inside Idlib. But their internal organization has been crumbling and splintering, leaving a discoordinated set of hard-lined fighters vying for power.
In early 2019, HTS fought with the other major rebel and jihadi umbrella group, the National Front for Liberation (NLF), which includes the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement and Ahrar al-Sham, two powerful jihadi groups. The Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement was briefly part of HTS.
The battle between HTS and the NLF only lasted for about two weeks, but it illustrates how beleaguered and fractious rebel and jihadi groups are inside Idlib.
HTS, extremist group that includes members of al-Nusra Front who were previously allied with ISIS, now faces the task of outing ISIS sleeper cells from the territory.
In late Jan, just a few weeks after HTS fighting with HTS, a woman approached the main administrative headquarters of the HTS’ governmental arm, the Syrian Salvation Government and blew herself up. Internal records from HTS show they suspect ISIS to be responsible for the attack.
On Feb 18, a double-tap twin car-bomb was detonated in the al-Qosor district of Idlib, killing 24 and wounding 70 more. After the first car bomb exploded, first responders went to the site only to be hit by the subsequent second explosion. Analysts think ISIS are responsible for the bombings.
On Friday March 1, a suicide bomb killed seven people dining at a restaurant in Idlib. A day later, HTS reported from their news agency that they found and killed eight members of an ISIS sleeper cell.
“We’ve seen an uptick in IS attacks, which coincides with a government shakeup in the northwest,” Chris Kozak, senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, explained.
“What we are seeing is a campaign by IS to re-establish a foothold in [Syria’s northwest].”
In all likelihood, ISIS’ remaining members in Idlib will be unable to gather themselves to exert any control in Idlib, but they are adding more chaos to an already-uncontrollable political situation marred by desperation and lawlessness.
Caught in the cross fires are civilians, who have been forced to adjust their lives to the constant threat of extreme violence.
“Of course, people are terrified,” said Muhammad Maari, a media activist in Idlib said.
“Many of the victims in these bombing attacks have been civilians. As a result, many families have even stopped sending their children to school.”
Major media outlets have opted to cover the ongoing military defeat of ISIS in southeastern Syria and the resultant outflow of refugees and surrendered fighters, some of whom are from Europe.
The Stakes of Warring For Idlib
Already, 40,000 a month are being displaced by jihadi infighting, shelling and lack of medical care.
Although humanitarian conditions have steadily deteriorated and medical access has grown scarce, donor fatigue may mean there are less countries willing to alleviate these conditions with aid.
Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad also has less international scrutiny than ever before in the war, as most world leaders now accept him as the presumptive winner of the war and thus the undisputed ruler of the country. This consensus makes Assad virtually immune from moves, such as an international tribunal, that may try to oust him as a war criminal.
Assad has also come to rely on the use of chemical weapons as a means of accelerating battles towards their conclusion while terrorizing civilians enough so that they prefer an Assad-governed Syria over living inside besieged rebel territory.
These conditions, plus the fact that Syrians are sealed into Idlib thanks to closed Turkish borders, creates a recipe for disaster inside Idlib.
Um Kasem is a widow who, like three million other Syrians, are stuck waiting for a battle that may kill her in a desperate situation that is slowly degrading her will to live.
“We have been displaced seven times because of the war. Whenever we move somewhere, war arrives,” she explained.
“We then kept moving between small villages—there were so many that I forgot their names. Sometimes, we were in an area for a month and we would have to move. We got very tired.”
Um Kasem said that she considers her own life to be a burden on those around her.
“I wish I could die and not be in need from any one. Death could be much better than this life. When you have to beg for food…what is the point of life?”
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