The government’s offensive into Idlib has resulted in serious fighting and a humanitarian crisis as Assad’s forces enter the last remaining opposition stronghold.
In 2018 the government offensives that finished off the opposition in Southern Syria led many commentators to conclude that the next target for the regime was the North-western Idlib governorate. This is currently held by a mix of rebel groups but is dominated by the jihadists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) who emerged as the strongest after a period of opposition infighting. Despite the warnings of the UN and humanitarian agencies of the potential consequences of a government assault on Idlib the expected offensive failed to materialise. This was partly due to the Sochi agreement that put in place de-escalation zones between the two sides but was dependent on Turkey reining in the likes of HTS (an undertaking obviously prone to disaster). The long delayed offensive began towards the end of April this year. It also affects parts of the Hama and Aleppo governorates.
It is not clear at this time what exactly the plans of the regime are. The ‘Dawn of Idlib’ offensive has begun near the southernmost tip of the opposition territory, leaving movement northwards for both fighters and civilians (evacuation corridors have also been set up). This allows those willing to risk moving into government territory a way out but encourages escape northward and is similar to an approach applied elsewhere, whereby fighters and civilians had the unenviable option of surrender or be bussed out to other opposition territory. The difference in the current offensive is that approximately half of the estimated three million people in Idlib are refugees from previous battles and there is nowhere left in Syria to be bussed to. The battles for the towns and villages in the area represent a last stand for the fighters there and the terrain is rough and mountainous, hence the grindingly slow pace of ‘Dawn of Idlib’, which has seen three ceasefires and a number of opposition counterattacks. Despite this, the government and its allies are clearly winning what is predicted to be a long and drawn out series of battles. Assad’s aim may be limited to regaining control of vital highways, to capturing the city of Idlib (the last under opposition control) or to taking control of the entire province once and for all, driving out those unwilling to submit to his rule. In truth, only Assad and his inner circle know. The aim may actually be to achieve all three and the last would reflect what has gone before with only those willing to submit to his rule left in the country and everyone else as refugees.
The fighting on the ground has been accompanied by artillery and airstrikes on civilian areas that have utilised banned munitions that include cluster bombs, incendiary devices and barrel bombs. Many of the airstrikes are on positions away from the frontlines. The UN estimates that at least 37 schools and 26 healthcare facilities have been damaged or destroyed in the last two months alone, including two in government held areas. An estimated 230,000 people have also fled the area. Of the families displaced by the violence, over half are reported to have children under five or a breastfeeding child. As has been the case in previous battles and offensives, the villages and towns under assault have become unliveable and while the regime cannot be held responsible for all of the damage, its use of indiscriminate weapons are causing a significantly disproportionate amount of it. There have been allegations that airstrikes have deliberately targeted hospital facilities, the GPS coordinates of which are made known to prevent their accidental targeting. It is common knowledge that the use of artillery and airstrikes carries with it the certainty that civilians will be killed and the outcome of every recent major battle for a city has been its destruction, regardless of who has been assaulting it. Examples include Aleppo and Raqqa in Syria, Mosul in Iraq and Sirte in Libya. If any point is to be made, it is not simply that the government and its allies are killing a disproportionate amount of civilians but that they are doing so deliberately and indiscriminately. Moreover, the composition of the similarly brutal fighters that it is combating is in no small part due to the regime having sent them to North-western Syria in the first place.
The above summary of the current situation is not simply intended as a criticism of an openly cruel regime. This would be far too simple given that it has tortured and killed its opponents by the thousands and has unequivocally stated that ‘it is Assad or we burn the country’. Nor should we let it off the hook by acknowledging that what is left of the opposition is dominated by groups such as HTS (an internationally designated terrorist organisation) or others that are flooded with foreign fighters. The humanitarian consequences mirror that of previous occasions in Syria and abroad, becoming an obscene repetition of what has gone before. It is clear that no one is going stop this hell and it does not appear possible that anyone actually can (not excepting that one side could give up, which is not going to happen). The UN has been left calling for both sides to exercise restraint and the UN Security Council is gridlocked as one of its permanent members (Russia) is actively involved in the conflict as an ally of Assad. Intervention may in fact make the situation even worse by prolonging the outcome and increasing the casualties and damage to infrastructure. The best that can be done for now is to mitigate the consequences through humanitarian efforts and putting additional pressure on the combatants to refrain from indiscriminate or deliberate violence against civilians through pressure on their backers. It is also time for the dominance of Russia, Iran and Turkey in negotiations to end as the talks in Astana and Sochi have supplanted the UN-led process as opposed to supplementing it. The UN’s process had been dominated by a Western agenda that had a predetermined outcome and failed to include the regime and its supporters. It was thus flawed but its replacement by Astana-Sochi merely put the strategic interests of Russia, Iran and Turkey to the fore. Conflict resolution and peacemaking should not be about the strategic interests of outsiders (whoever they may be) but about those of the people directly affected by the conflict. There is still much that can happen in Syria and the outcomes are currently being decided by might and self-interest, to the detriment of all.
For more information regarding this blog see:
Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.