War in Syria: why the battle for Idlib can be final and provoke a “humanitarian emergency never seen before”

War in Syria: why the battle for Idlib can be final and provoke a “humanitarian emergency never seen before”

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The UN asks to avoid a “bloodbath”. And the United States speaks of a “potential tragedy”.

The alarm arises because of what happens in Idlib, the last bastion of the rebels fighting the government of Bashar al Assad in Syria and which is in the sights of the government and therefore of its great ally, Russia.

The seizure of this area by the government can mean the de facto end of the war in Syria (which now lasts seven years) and both the executive of that country and its allies prepare a great offensive.

According to a monitoring group based in the United Kingdom, Russian forces began bombing the area on Tuesday, while the international community calls for containment.

Here we explain why this battle is crucial to the conflict.

This province in northwestern Syria is the last great bastion of rebels and jihadist groups that have tried to topple President Al Asad for the past seven years.

According to the UN, around 2.9 million people live in Idlib, including one million children.

More than half of the civilians living in Idlib come from other parts of Syria and arrived after having been evacuated from other areas that had been controlled by the rebels.

Idlib (25 August 2018)
Copyright of the AFP image
Image caption The rebels and jihadists took control of Idlib in 2015.

 

The province is border with Turkey to the north, and through it pass important roads that continue towards the south: from Aleppo (north) to Hama or the capital, Damascus; or to the west to the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia.

If the government manages to take Idlib, it will leave the rebels with very few territory under control in the country and will be a de facto signal of the final defeat of these groups.

Who controls Idlib?

The province is not controlled by a single group, but by several rival factions that are estimated to run some 30,000 fighters.

The most influential force is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist alliance linked to Al Qaeda.

HTS controls Idlib’s key points, such as the capital or the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to Turkey. The UN considers it a terrorist organization and estimates that it has 10,000 fighters in Idlib, many of them foreigners.

The Front for the Liberation of Syria, supported by Turkey, is the second most powerful alliance in the area.

It was formed last year by rebel factions who wanted to counteract the weight of the HTS. Among them are hard-line Islamist groups such as Ahrar al Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zinki brigades, as well as others fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

Why is the Syrian government’s offensive coming now?

The conflict has turned a lot in favor of the Syrian president.

The air strikes by Russia and the support of thousands of fighters backed by their other great ally, Iran, have helped the Syrian Army to defeat the rebels elsewhere.

On August 30, the country’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said the government’s priority was now to ” liberate ” Idlib.

Members of the HTS alliance.
Copyright of the AFP image
Image caption The leader of the HTS has rejected the calls to disarm and assured that they will continue fighting.

 

The foreign minister said he wanted to prevent the deaths of civilians and recover the territory through “reconciliation agreements,” but said the government was determined to defeat the HTS “regardless of the sacrifices.”

Russia has also argued that the Syrian government has every right to “liquidate the terrorist threat from its territory . 

 
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Turkey, which has troops in Idlib monitoring the effectiveness of a previous agreement aimed at reducing fighting in the province, has been negotiating with Russia in an effort to prevent a large-scale attack .

This border country, which currently houses more than 3 million Syrian refugees, fears that a new offensive will provoke another wave of people fleeing to its border.

What will happen to the people who currently live in Idlib?

A large-scale military operation could have devastating consequences for the province.

Hundreds of thousands of people already live in harsh conditions, crammed into places where basic services can no longer cope.

Fighters from the Front for the Liberation of Syria are preparing for an attack on August 31, 2018.
Copyright of the AFP image
Image caption Fighters from the Front for the Liberation of Syria have been preparing for a possible attack by the government.

 

A veteran UN aid official has warned that an attack on Idlib “has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency on a scale never before seen in this crisis.”

The UN explains that up to 800,000 people could be displaced and warns that the already high number of people who need help can increase dramatically.

It is not yet clear where those displaced can go, since Turkey closed its border.

Border areas controlled by rebels supported by Turkey around the cities of Afrin and Jarabulus are already overtaken by displaced people. And many opposition supporters fear imprisonment if they cross into government-controlled territory.

Can the attack be avoided?

The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called on Russia, Iran and Turkey not to rush.

A wall on the border between Turkey and Syria, seen from the Syrian city of Atimeh, Idlib province in October 2010.
Copyright of the REUTERS image
Image caption Turkey, which has already received 3 million Syrian refugees, has closed its border.

 

The official proposed two options: try to buy time to find a political solution or “allow and facilitate a humanitarian corridor to allow the civilian population that can be evacuated temporarily to a safer area”, most likely under government control.

Turkey wants Syria and Russia to postpone the operation, and the leaders of the three countries have a meeting in Iran in four days to discuss the situation.

The United States, which supported the rebellion against Al Asad, said the “brutality” shown by the Syrian government in the past shows that it can not be trusted to protect civilians and called on Russia to intervene.

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