MS Risk Blog

The Concerning Situation in Idlib Province in Syria

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A great deal of global attention has been afforded to Syria since the beginning of its civil war in 2011. In recent months however, the country has found itself facing fresh waves of scrutiny with the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and US President Donald Trump’s recent announcement to withdraw US troops from the region. Despite allegations that ISIS is almost defeated, along with Syrian Democratic Forces closing in on the terror group’s last remaining stronghold in Baghouz, the security situation still remains increasingly unstable in the country with new threats lurking on the horizon.

The jihadist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has been making gains in northern Syria in the last few months, mainly by way of seizing more than a dozen towns and villages in Idlib province. This has resulted in a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the area. The group have previous affiliations to Al-Qaeda and have remained a dangerous opposition force throughout the duration of the Syrian conflict, according to the Centre for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). CSIS further state that the US State Department formally recognised the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation in May 2018. However, according to CSIS, they are now thought of as a fairly localised Syrian terrorist organisation which preserves a Salafi-jihadist ideology. International aid organisations have subsequently withdrawn aid and support for schools and hospitals in the fear of aid money being diverted by the terrorist group. This has inevitably had a wide-scale effect on the quality of life of civilians living in Idlib province.

Residents have also been rightly concerned that the Syrian government will use the gains of the terrorist organisation as a justification to launch a full-scale assault and completely break the ceasefire which Russia and Turkey initially agreed in September last year. Idlib has already been subject to weeks of shelling, resulting in the deaths of at least 160 people since the beginning of February, according to reporting by The New Arab. At the beginning of March, in an apparent effort to end the killings, Turkey and Russia announced they would be launching joint patrols in Idlib province. According to Al Jazeera, the agreement states that Russian forces would patrol the edge of the province, whilst the Turkish army would operate in the demilitarised zone. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akdar testified that the patrols marked a significant step for ensuring stability in the region.

However, mere days after this agreement was brokered, Russian aircraft struck hospitals and civilian infrastructure in the area. According to reporting by The Guardian, the bombardment by Russian and Syrian planes was the most extensive yet with airstrikes reportedly intensifying in Idlib. Idlib residents said Russian aircraft conducted at least 12 aerial strikes on residential areas, including a civilian prison on its outskirts. At least 10 civilians were killed and 45 injured.

Approximately three million people are thought to live in Idlib province. Analysts have warned that a full-scale assault could result in severe displacement, leading to hundreds of thousands of refugees joining the four million who have already left Syria. Judging from the previous capabilities and intentions of Bashar al-Assad, he will be likely to want to regain complete control of the entire region, despite warning from humanitarian organizations and the international community that an offensive could send many fleeing towards Syrian’s northern border with Turkey. This would further compound the already existing humanitarian crisis in Syria. For example, 65,000 people who have fled from ISIS’ last stronghold in Baghouz are believed to be currently camping at Al-Hawl camp in northeast Syria. This figure is three times the capacity of the camp, with officials stating that health services are collapsing under the burden of so many people. Camp workers have warned that they do not have enough food, medicine or tents and have said that diseases will spread rapidly as a result.

Aid agencies have previously warned that a significant assault on Idlib could cause one of the worst humanitarian crises’ in Syria’s war. The situation could well pave the way for the next crisis in the Middle East, threatening the UN’s capacity to stick to other catastrophes it is currently engaged in, such as Yemen. However, given the strong desire of Western governments and humanitarian agencies to avoid furthering a crisis, aid will likely be reintroduced to the area, along with greater pressure applied on Bashar al-Assad to concede some control.