In Syria, the population of Idlib is bracing for what promises to be a brutal offensive by the Assad regime. Idlib is the last significant area in the country not under government control. The impact on civilians is expected to be dire. Diplomates and aid workers are predicting a humanitarian catastrophe. Needs in Idlib are already enormous. An all-out assault has the potential to cause suffering on a scale even larger than that of the battles of Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta.
Of the roughly three million people now living in Idlib, half are displaced. Many of those were evacuated to the province after the regime took over the areas where they lived and fought previously. The province is a de facto refuge for people who do not support the regime in Damascus, as well as the people who are originally from there. Displacement camps inside Idlib along the Turkish border have grown steadily—and so have the humanitarian needs of the people living inside and outside of them.
Two thirds of the population of Idlib relies on humanitarian assistance to survive. Most of the large aid providers, including the United Nations and NGOs, work from across the Turkish border because they cannot cross the front lines inside Syria. However, over the last few years, it has become harder and harder to get aid into Idlib because of security concerns and restrictions by the Turkish government. The limited aid that does arrive from Turkey is essential but remains inadequate. Hundreds of thousands of people receive regular food assistance and health care services, but hundreds of thousands more have little support available to them.
The Assad regime and its patrons in Moscow have billed the offensive as an effort to root out radical groups that operate from Idlib. However, there is little to suggest that their forces will bother to distinguish between transnational jihadists and millions of innocent civilians. If a military operation interrupts the provision of humanitarian assistance, what happens to all the people who have sheltered there for years and have nowhere left to go?
The best option would be for those fleeing to seek refuge in Turkey. But Turkey closed its borders to fleeing Syrian refugees years ago and is now making preparations to contain any new wave of refugees who would try to avoid the impending violence. While it is not clear what this containment entails, it’s hard to imagine positive outcomes. The foreign minister of Turkey, which borders Idlib and is already hosting millions of Syrian refugee, has stated that “Attacking the whole of Idlib to eliminate some radical groups would mean causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people and making 3.5 million people leave their homes one more time.” This doesn’t read as an indication that the Turkish border will open even under significant pressure. Turkey has also been willing to shoot at Syrian asylum seekers trying to enter its territory.
The next choice might be to leave Idlib entirely and go elsewhere, as fleeing civilians tend to do during conflict. However, Idlib’s surrounding areas are largely regime-controlled and most people seem unwilling to seek protection from a government who forced them into their current situation. Those who are wanted by the regime would not find a warm welcome. Even those who are not on the regime’s radar would be suspected of anti-government sentiment after residing in Idlib. And while humanitarian assistance is happening in regime-controlled areas, aid workers simply can’t keep up with need.
A third option—and this is being discussed—is the creation of safe spaces inside Idlib to which civilians could flee, or the establishment of a humanitarian corridor through which to evacuate people. While both of these ideas may seem reasonable in theory, implementing them on the ground requires a tremendous amount of coordination between belligerents and a third-party guarantor. Otherwise, safe spaces and humanitarian corridors can quickly turn into killing fields.
The track record of using such arrangements to protect civilians in Syria is abysmal. Idlib is already an Astana-agreed de-escalation zone, but that hasn’t prevented the regime from shelling it even as its allies encourage restraint. Russia, Turkey and Iran—the guarantors of the de-escalation zones—have allowed these zones to fail. There is little reason to believe they can or will enforce new measures designed to achieve the same result.
When Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran discuss Idlib’s fate later this week, they must remember that the lives of millions of civilians hang on their ability to find a peaceful resolution to this situation. If they don’t find one, the humanitarian disaster that is likely to follow will further overwhelm a response system that has been unable to keep up with needs for more than seven years.