One of the greatest humanitarian disasters in Syria to date is looming. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, including Russia and Iran, have steadily regained control of most of the country. The northwest governorate of Idlib and its surroundings in northern Hama and Aleppo countryside are the rebels’ last stronghold. Now Damascus and its allies are applying their brutal efforts there. While the immediate threat to civilians there is dire, if Assad isn’t stopped what comes after could be even worse.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since the start of the conflict in 2011, almost 12.2 million Syrians have been displaced either across international borders, becoming refugees or within Syria, becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs). Some 1.5 million IDPs have fled to Idlib and neighboring areas from their hometowns in regions formerly controlled by armed opposition groups, doubling the pre-war population of the governate. Many of those fleeing either the regime’s barrel bombs or the Russian Air Force have previously lost their homes, belongings and loved ones — often more than once — in one of the deadliest wars in recent history.
The recent surge in violence has already taken a significant toll on the civilian population. Since the end of April, more than 100 people were killed and many more injured. As many as 200,000 have fled the relentless bombardment, meaning since February more than 300,000 people have been displaced. In addition, the violence forced several humanitarian organizations to suspend their operations in parts of the northwest, which has exacerbated the dire conditions of a population that relies predominantly on humanitarian assistance. Perhaps most cruelly, hospitals and other major civilian infrastructure are systematically targeted.
The regime and its allies aren’t the only threats to civilians in Idlib. In recent months, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an offshoot of al Qaeda, has taken control of much of the governorate. HTS has imposed harsh rules on the population and committed many human rights abuses. Stories of abductions, tortures and murders by HTS members or criminal gangs taking advantage of the security situation are all too common.
Most worryingly, the civilian population is trapped and has nowhere else to go. Idlib was the last refuge for Syrians who resisted Assad’s domination, but with the regime regaining control of much of the country, there is no other refuge available. Turkey, where an estimated 3.5 million Syrians currently live, has fortified its border with Syria by building nearly 500 miles of wall to keep new Syrian refugees. Inside Syria, Turkish troops are preventing new waves of IDPs for entering the areas they control in the northwest of the country.
The imminent killing, destruction and displacement are reasons enough for the world to act immediately. Yet, should the government in Damascus reassert its control over Idlib, the aftermath could be equally grim. Those civilians who survive the bloodshed are unlikely to find relief at the hands of the Assad regime. Idlib has sheltered some of its most vocal opponents, including journalists and activists. Many are likely to face retribution at the hands of the regime’s security forces, as their counterparts have in other parts of the country.
In Ghouta, Aleppo and other areas recaptured by the regime, thousands of people were detained, tortured, killed or forcibly disappeared. Fighting-age men and boys face the additional threat of forced conscription as the Syrian Army strives to replenish its depleted forces. In many retaken areas, the government has failed to restore basic services. Nor has it made any real effort to help the local population recover. This type of collective punishment is standard fair for communities formerly under opposition control. It is perhaps the best that Idlib’s civilians can hope for if the international community fails to act.
The main country with the diplomatic clout and military muscle to stop a slaughter in Idlib is Turkey. Ankara should re-energize its diplomacy with Moscow and Tehran to deescalate Idlib NATO, even as it renegotiates realistic steps with Russia on how to enforce the demilitarized zone, agreed to in Sochi in September 2018.
For their part, the United States, the European Union and regional leaders should redouble their efforts to dissuade Russia, Iran and Syria against further escalation. The Trump administration, in particular should press and support Turkey, a NATO ally, in its efforts to reengage with regional players to stop the coming slaughter. If nothing is done, thousands will die, and the Syrian refugee crisis will grow exponentially worse. History, in turn, will hold the world responsible.