The horror of Idlib

The recent escalation of violence in Idlib is also a result of the increasing tensions between Turkey and Russia. The victims are those in Idlib, caught up in a hopeless situation amid a huge spectrum of differing interests. By Bente Scheller

By Bente Scheller

The UN’s emergency relief coordinator Mark Lowcock is warning against the "biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century" in the Syrian province of Idlib. Within just two months, the military offensive of the Syrian regime and its allies have forced more than 900,000 people to flee. But for the two-to-three million people in Idlib, there is no way out. Turkey is maintaining its closed border policy.

If powerful members of the UN Security Council continue to put their own interests above humanity, Idlib will become "the world’s biggest pile of rubble strewn, with the corpses of a million children," said Lowcock.

There are up to three million people in Idlib, half of them displaced from other parts of the country. There are not even any more tents on the border. This means many families are left exposed to the elements in sub-zero temperatures. The image of one-and-a-half-year-old Laila, frozen in her father’s arms on the way to hospital, has become a symbol of the desperate situation facing the people of Idlib.

Assad regime violating international law on a massive scale

Whether in the case of Aleppo in December 2016, the recapture of Daraa or the agonising months of the offensive against Ghouta, the Syrian regime has repeatedly violated international law on a massive scale and shown no regard for human rights. In Idlib, it has also attacked people on the run and in refugee camps, which prompted the UN to declare that nowhere can be deemed to be safe.

There was always one more way out from all the other enclaves: to be deported to Idlib. But from Idlib itself, there is nowhere left to go. Even if the people survive the attacks, this does not mean they are safe, by any means. This is because in the territories recaptured by the regime, it interrogates, pursues and arrests not only its militant opponents, but also those who have worked to uphold civilian life in rebel-held areas. Despite the most hostile conditions, fear of this means the inhabitants of Idlib continue to hold out and hope for a miracle.

Civilians following an airstrike on Idlib province by the Assad regime (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Von der Staatengemeinschaft im Stich gelassen: Die Lage in der nordwestlichen Provinz Idlib hat sich in den vergangenen Wochen dramatisch verschlechtert. Nach UN-Angaben flohen seit Anfang Dezember rund 900 000 Syrer vor heranrückenden Regierungstruppen und Gewalt. Trotz einer Waffenruhe setzten die Truppen ihre Angriffe in den vergangenen Wochen fort und konnten größere Gebiete einnehmen. Syrien und sein Verbündeter Russland argumentieren, sie bekämpften in der Region Terroristen.

The only way to prevent the worst from happening would be a ceasefire. Theoretically this is already in place – since Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed on Idlib as one of four "de-escalation zones" in May 2017. But what initially functioned as a constructive proposal to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population quickly revealed itself to be part of a military strategy allowing the regime to concentrate its forces on one front at a time, while at the same time recapturing one opposition area after another.

As far as Turkey was concerned, Idlib was more important than the others. Due to its proximity with the border, Ankara viewed "Zone 1" as a kind of security zone separating it from the regime and preventing further refugees from entering Turkey. But many of the observation posts set up by Turkey as guard posts along what is known as the "Sochi Line" have been circumvented and besieged by the regime.  And ultimately, it was always clear that it was only a matter of time before Idlib would come under attack.

Ankara is playing with fire

A problematic issue for Turkey is that the military offensive in Idlib is not only being advanced by the Syrian regime, but also by Russia. In the foreign policy arena, Turkey has in recent years and on key questions distanced itself from the EU but also from NATO. But beyond this too, in the event of a confrontation with Russia, Ankara cannot bank on support from western states as these have always gone down the appeasement route regarding Russian intervention in Syria.

Despite the massive number of reinforcements sent to Idlib by the Turkish military, there are questions over what should happen after the expiry of Erdogan’s ultimatum for a withdrawal of regime forces at the end of February. In the meantime, Turkey is subtly turning up the heat on Assad by changing the way it co-operates with the rebels.

For example, as documented by the analyst Gregory Waters, many more high-ranking members of the Syrian military were killed in recent months than previously, which would suggest that the rebels had access to more reliable information. In addition in the past week, two Syrian regime helicopters were shot down using MANPADs – a weapon not previously in the Syrian rebel arsenal.


Helicopters enjoy a particular status in the warfare of the regime, because they are the only means to drop barrel bombs. Since August 2012, the regime has dropped more than 70,000 of these improvised explosive devices reducing entire villages and neighbourhoods to rubble. They are especially destructive and cannot be guided, which means most of their victims have been civilians.

Putin's unconditional support for Assad

The fact that the shooting down of two helicopters is enough to deter the regime from carrying out further attacks of this nature shows how easy it would have been to save hundreds of thousands of human lives in Syria.

At the current point in time however, Russia is determined to pave the way for the regime and is intensifying its bombardments with airpower. With targeted strikes on hospitals and other health facilities, Assad and his allies are preventing treatment of the sick and injured and de-populating entire swathes of land at an unprecedented rate.

"In many places captured by the regime in recent days, there is no evident strategic interest," says Chatham House fellow Haid Haid. "The regime captures them because it can, because if the people have already fled the air strikes, it can take the deserted places without a fight."

He perceives Russia’s unconditional support of the regime as a tactical change: thus far, Russia only ever allowed the regime to make very limited progress before calling a halt, he says. But now, it is smoothing the way for the Syrian army to capture as much territory as possible.

The more dramatic the situation becomes, the more clout Russia wields in Geneva. With its air support, Russia is yet again able to show the world that it is determined to go all the way, says Haid Haid.

Syrian refugee children from Idlib (photo: DW)
Drohende humanitäre Katastrophe: Die Provinz Idlib im Nordwesten Syriens ist der letzte große Rückzugsort der Rebellen. Inzwischen leben dort drei bis vier Millionen Zivilisten, genau weiß das niemand. Etwa die Hälfte sind Vertriebene aus anderen Teilen Syriens. Für sie ist Idlib die letzte Hoffnung - von hier aus geht es nicht weiter.

Russia’s advantage is that it does not need an overarching strategy. In view of the unfettered diplomatic support given to the regime by Russia, minimal concessions are enough; no one is expecting Moscow to come up with a peace plan for Syria. While Russia is free to decide the extent of its engagement and a worsening of the situation in Syria plays into Putin’s hands, things look very different for Turkey as a direct neighbour.

President Erdogan has repeatedly said he will use refugees from Syria as leverage against Europe. However, these refugees would need to enter Turkey first and only a fraction of them would be in a position to travel on to Europe. "Turkish border patrols shoot people every day as they try to cross the border – this is barely being reported. Even Syrian organisations are saying very little about it because most of them are in Turkey," says Haid Haid.

Essentially, the escalation of violence in Idlib is also a result of tensions between Turkey and Russia. It is true that Russia did make some concessions to Turkey. One example is the extension of cross-border aid to Syria agreed in tough negotiations in the UN security council in mid-January. Russia blocked the shipments via Iraq and Jordan, but made an exception for Turkey. But shortly afterwards, Erdogan declared he would send Syrian militias to Libya, where Russia and Turkey also find themselves on different sides of the conflict.

The victims are those in Idlib, caught up in a hopeless situation amid a huge spectrum of differing interests. Assad has declared several times that he will recapture "every centimetre of Syrian territory". He wants the country, but not the people. This is why it is part of his strategy to cause the greatest possible suffering to be rid of as many potential rebels as possible and deter returnees. This strategy is paying off, as images of the "humanitarian corridor" show: despite the horrific conditions in Idlib, no one is fleeing to regime-held areas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin receives Bashar al-Assad in Moscow (photo: Reuters/Sputnik)
Seit‘ an Seit‘ mit dem syrischen Diktator: "Der Vorteil Russlands ist, dass es keine umfassende Strategie braucht. Angesichts der uneingeschränkten russischen Unterstützung des Regimes reichen minimale diplomatische Zugeständnisse; einen Plan zu einer Befriedung Syriens erwartet niemand aus Moskau", schreibt Bente Scheller.

The regime has already captured around a third of Idlib. Even though it is conceivable that Turkey might accept a smaller territory as "security zone": a minimum of local infrastructure would be necessary to supply this – infrastructure that is disappearing with every takeover of a town or city by the regime.

The Syrian regime does not care what happens to these people. It has not been called to account for any of its crimes, from the deployment of chemical weapons through to thousands of deaths by torture in detention. The Russian support of his actions in Idlib means Assad has nothing to fear here either.

The allies are unperturbed by hundreds of thousands of dead. Particularly as the timing could not be more perfect: the global public is weary of the war and the unsettling news from Syria, politicians have for a long time had little ambition to grind themselves down on the intransigence of the despots.

Even though the current horrors only provide a foretaste of what the inhabitants of Idlib can expect following Assad’s victory; Europe could not be less keen to get involved at this point in time.

If the United Nations and European nations cannot protect the people in Syria, the only other logical consequence would be to facilitate their escape to safety.  But thus far, no country has expressed a willingness to accept refugees from Syria.

European governments shy away from action to counter Russia’s aggressive policy in the region, while at the same time allowing themselves to be cowed by emboldened right-wing anti-refugee movements to such an extent that they lack the courage to make broad humanitarian gestures.

But this is actually what is needed right now.

Bente Scheller

© 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Bente Scheller took over as head of the Heinrich Boll Foundation Middle East and North Africa Division in September 2019. From 2012 to 2019 she was director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation office in Beirut. Prior to this, she was head of their office in Afghanistan. In February 2013 her book "The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads" was published.