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Nowhere else to flee: Why Idlib’s humanitarian crisis is so dangerous

More than 235,000 people have fled Syria’s last opposition stronghold of Idlib as the Syrian government, backed by Russia, stepped up attacks against the city.

A humanitarian catastrophe is underway in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.

As pro-government forces double down on Idlib and appear to close in on the key highway town of Maaret al-Numan in the province’s southern reaches, they are spurring the latest wave of tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes toward the relative safety of the province’s north.

The United Nations counts more than 235,000 people displaced in the past two weeks alone, largely from Maaret al-Numan and its surrounding countryside. 

But after years of pro-government advances on opposition-held territory, Idlib remains Syria’s final bastion of rebel control. There is, effectively, nowhere else to run.

Idlib has long been a byword for coercive displacement in Syria’s war — the final stop for displaced people and rebel fighters as government forces seized pocket after pocket of territory from rebels in recent years. The displacement followed a morbid rhythm: siege, devastating bombardment, surrender and, finally, lines of green government buses sent into flattened neighborhoods, to take hundreds of thousands of residents and opposition fighters north to Idlib, which has remained under rebel control.

Displaced families from east Aleppo, Daraa, eastern Ghouta and elsewhere now live crammed in Idlib province. Some live in rented homes or with relatives. Others shelter in makeshift tents, or simply camp out on waterproof sheets under olive trees.

Counted alongside Idlib’s original residents, they number roughly 3 million people.

But with Idlib the last major pocket of territory still held by rebel forces, what could be the fate of millions of displaced civilians and fighters with few other options for areas to flee to?

The answer is unclear.

“There is no 'Idlib' for Idlib,” Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Al-Monitor. “There is no [other] place where these people who refuse reconciliation, who refuse to surrender to the regime can be dumped in.”

Turkey, just across the border from Idlib, has long been a destination for Syrians desperate to flee violence at home, with a booming market of people smugglers working to guide people across — for a high price. But the closed Turkish border is guarded by snipers, and few recently displaced are able to pay the cost of transport.

“Most people are fleeing toward the Turkish border areas but they are unable to enter Turkey,” said Kutaiba Sayd Issa, general manager of Violet, a nongovernmental organization that provides humanitarian aid in northern Syria. The group is among those that have provided transport for Syrians from bombed-out southern Idlib province to the northern border areas in recent days.

Instead, he said, families are simply amassing along the Syrian side of the border, with little in the way of shelter to protect them from winter cold and flooding. The harsh weather in recent weeks has devastated makeshift camps there, leaving tents, mattresses and other belongings submerged in mud.

The crisis underway is “unprecedented” in Idlib, Issa told Al-Monitor.

The devastation has only been building since pro-government and Russian forces launched their onslaught earlier this year. In late April, Syrian and Russian forces ramped up bombardment of Idlib province, raining airstrikes and artillery fire on largely civilian targets. The assault came despite a deal in late 2018 that, in theory, saw Turkey and Russia draw up a safety “buffer zone” around much of Idlib province.

But since April, more than 1,000 people have been estimated killed in the barrage of bombings, while pro-government forces have seized swathes of southern Idlib province, including the strategic highway city of Khan Sheikhoun.

In their wake, the bombings have left behind burnt crop fields, cratered local markets and hospitals reduced to rubble.

In Maaret al-Numan, “virtually all” medical workers were evacuated this week after years of holding fast amid bombings, according to Orwa Khalifeh, an advocacy officer for the Syrian American Medical Society, which funds medical facilities in Syria. Facilities in the city were among the dozens targeted in direct attacks by pro-government and Russian forces since late April.

Medical staff themselves have been harmed in the attacks, with one dentist injured by shrapnel in his Maaret al-Numan clinic in October taking shelter with family north of the city. He is among the thousands of residents who has fled the city since last week.

And the bloodshed only risks worsening. Rebel fighters now vying to stem an all-out advance by government ground forces are among those who refused reconciliation deals in pockets of opposition territory elsewhere that fell to Damascus, or are among the array of hard-line Islamist groups that hold sway in Idlib, including al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham that still controls much of the province.

“These fighters are unlikely to ever reconcile with the regime, to ever surrender to it,” Tsurkov said. “The regime will either have to kill them or capture them.”

One displaced Maaret al-Numan resident, journalist Sonia al-Ali, followed the violence from afar on the night of Dec. 26 as she took shelter in a town just south of the Turkish border. She and her family fled their home in recent days as pro-government forces began seizing villages south of Maaret al-Numan.

The quick ground advances and an “unprecedented” uptick in bombardment since last week spurred them to leave, according to Ali.

They took few belongings with them. The family were among the last of the city’s residents to flee, leaving behind a ghost town.

“Everything that’s happening tells me it will be a long wait before I can return home [to Maaret al-Numan]," she told Al-Monitor by phone.

That city now sits empty.

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