The Last Rebel Stronghold: Idlib Between A Humanitarian Crisis And The End Of The Syrian Civil War

The Syrian conflict has been catalysing the world’s attention for eight years now. The last months have brought significant developments to the table such as the announcement, some months ago, that the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate had fallen and ISIS was defeated. But does this mean the end of the Syrian Civil War? Rebels forces, the National Army and allies of both factions are still fighting for what seems to be the final act of this conflict, which has seen a country full of ancient beauty turn into a land of fratricidal war and smoky ruins.

At the origin of the Syrian Civil War is the revolutionary sentiment of the Arab Spring, which inspired revolts and protests throughout the Middle East. The first clashes date back to March 2011, when groups of citizens stood up to the government by creating a military force, the Free Syrian Army, in response to the violence and repression exercised by the president Bashar al-Assad. The situation soon evolved into a broader conflict, with external forces joining the fight in support of one or the other faction, Russia and Iran thus sided with the Regime, and Turkey and the Gulf States helped the rebels. The U.S. also became a prominent actor, entering the scene in opposition to the Islamic State, which aimed to annex the Syrian territories to its Caliphate. The Syrian conflict was no longer a national issue, but an international battleground for the interests of foreign countries and political groups.

Year after year, the war continued, slowly turning in favour of Assad. This was largely due to the vital support offered by Russia as well as the questionable and highly criticised military tactics carried out by the National Army, which allegedly included attacks on civilians with chemical weapons.

A significant turning point was reached in March 2019, when the Islamic State crumbled under the pressure imposed on them by the Kurdish and American forces. To many, the end of ISIS signified with the end of the Syrian Civil war. However, as things stand now, it likely that they were wrong. The confrontation between rebels and the Regime is still raging, especially in Idlib, the last stronghold of the opposition.

The President of Russia Vladimir Putin meets Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from Turkey and Hassan Rouhani from Iran in Sochi, 2017. Photo: Static Kremlin.

Combat in the area have been going on and off since the first accords in 2017 when Iran, Russia and Turkey met in Sochi to discuss a plan to stop hostilities and encourage the transition towards the end of the conflict through the creation of ‘de-escalation zones’ in four Syrian provinces. The countries also allegedly made plans on how to target members of ISIS more efficiently while minimizing casualties.

Offensive operations were carried out by the Assad regime on three areas: those rebels who refused to reconcile with the Regime were moved, along with their families, to the Idlib Province, which has seen its population doubled from 1.5 to 3 million people since the beginning of the conflict.
The situation took a different turn in September 2018, when Russia, alongside the military forces of President Assad, declared to be preparing for further de-militarization of the Idlib region by planning bombings and air strikes.

Earlier this month, Russia and the Syrian Army announced a unilateral ceasefire on the northwest area of the country. However, it seems like the declaration has not been honoured, as activists in Idlib have been constantly reporting on new bombings and attacks. Action continues from both sides, with rebels gathering their last forces to counter the offensives of the Syrian army.

Turkey is exercising all its influence in an attempt to reach a peaceful resolution, being the faction that would suffer the consequences of yet another wave of refugees. The Idlib region, in fact, is situated at the border with Turkey, which would become the destination for thousands of people trying to escape bombs, hunger and death.

However, Turkey has already been dramatically affected by the migration crisis caused by the conflict. According to some sources, it has allegedly ‘reached the limits of its capacity to receive refugees because it already accommodates more than 3.6 million Syrians’. Turkey has been discussing with Russia the latest events, with special reference to the violation of the ceasefire by the Syrian army, but there is a very low possibility, if any, that Assad would abstain from attempting to reconquer the territory of the country as it was at the beginning of the conflict.

As the weather gets colder, people warm themselves by lighting fires. Many burn the litter strewn around the camp, a partial solution to Harmanli’s garbage problems. Photo: UNHCR.

The intervention of the U.S., on the other hand, has been mostly focused on voicing disagreement with the Russian behaviour and urging them to stop bombings and airstrikes while abstaining from direct action. The U.S. activity has also effectively kept an eye on the development of the situation in the north-east territory, and have been among the voices who accused president Bashar al-Assad of once more using chemical weapons on May 19. President Trump announced last December that he intended to retire U.S. troops from the Syrian territory, not without some uncertainty and indecisiveness on how this would be done. These intentions were soon translated into a partial and gradual withdrawal, which has seen a number of American soldiers still remaining in Syria in order to secure areas at risk of a Jihadist revival. The situation is further complicated by reports that numerous Jihadists are believed to be residing among the people in Idlib. If humanitarian corridors were opened for people to leave the region, a freeway would be offered for the Jihadists to reach Europe and Turkey, representing a considerable security threat.

“If the escalation continues, and the offensive pushes forward, we risk catastrophic humanitarian fallout and threats to international peace and security”
– Rosemary DiCarlo, UN’s head of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.

Despite the enormous strategic relevance played by Idlib at this stage of the conflict, there is an aspect that makes the situation even more desperate. If the attacks continue, this last act of the Syrian civil war could turn into one of the deadliest and most cruel periods of the entire conflict. The region has already been addressed by Mark Lowcock, UN relief chief, as a scenario where the worst fears for the future have become true. The latest report claim that 229 civilians were killed and 727 were wounded by bombings since late April not to mention the destruction of schools, hospitals, facilities and houses.

Yet, the residents keep resisting the pressure of the Regime, refusing the offer of a ‘safe passage out’ of the region, declaring they have no trust in the government nor intentions of fleeing their homeland. The situation has worsened to the point where all aid operations have been suspended due to the immense danger to volunteers. With no signs of improvement, it seems like yet another humanitarian crisis looms over the Syrian people trapped in Idlib.

Laura Sanzarello

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