Assad’s Idlib Assault Could Trigger A Refugee “Catastrophe”

A top Turkish official has sounded the alarm over Bashar al-Assad’s latest military campaign on the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, arguing that it could ignite a “new wave of migration.” Reinforced by immense Russian air power, Syrian troops have quickly advanced on the province since late 2017, triggering a counter-offensive by the opposition Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS). With the assault displacing over 100,000 Syrian civilians, there are fears of a humanitarian catastrophe in a province already full of refugees. Mounir Mustafa, the deputy chief of the White Helmets, explained that “this displacement is the biggest perhaps in the Syrian revolution since its beginning until today.”

Tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee the frontlines in Idlib, which until recently has been the only area controlled by rebels fighting to overthrow the Damascus government. Given the fact that many Idlib residents are subsistence farmers raising livestock, fleeing to the north leaves them without a livelihood. In the past week alone, 30,000 refugees have moved into Idlib’s heavily populated cities, leading to intense crowding in refugee camps battling the harsh winter. Local authorities estimate that this figure is far higher. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has found that two-thirds of new refugees were sharing in makeshift tents with up to three families in each and that many of the camps do not have toilets. The regime’s vicious campaign has included a renewed attack on hospitals, with at least eight targeted in Idlib in recent weeks.

One Syrian aid worker broke down as he spoke of the humanitarian consequences of the civil war: “I was in Syria two days and I couldn’t stop crying. This time last year, we had the fall of Aleppo city. And now we have people from Idlib’s countryside. People are so worried, so scared, so disappointment. We try to help. But no one can really make things better. No one can imagine what it’s like to have to leave your home and not know if you’ll ever be able to return,” he added.

After almost seven years, half a million deaths, and a recent string of victories, many felt that the vicious war was finishing. However, this major assault is a worrying development. The Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim has joined the chorus warning of a refugee “catastrophe,” arguing that “the intensified attacks in Idlib will trigger a new wave of migration and cause new suffering.” The warning will worry EU member states who signed the deal for Ankara to reduce the flow of refugees and migrants attempting to journey from Turkey into Europe.

The renewed violence casts doubt on the Russian, Turkish, and Iranian efforts to negotiate a Syrian peace settlement. A new deal has targeted Idlib and other at-risk Syrian regions as “de-escalation zones” in an attempt to diminish the violence and create greater conditions for peace talks. Despite Russia setting the next peace talks for late January to be held in Sochi, Turkish officials might refuse to attend, warning that the military bombardment in Idlib is jeopardizing those talks.