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The looming fight for Idlib, Syria’s last main rebel stronghold, explained

Even President Donald Trump is worried about the likely humanitarian catastrophe.

Members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard near posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province on August 20, 2018.
Members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard near posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province on August 20, 2018.
George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian government is likely on the verge of launching a bloody offensive to capture the last major rebel stronghold in the country: Idlib. And if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces succeed, it will all but confirm the regime’s victory in the seven-year war.

The anticipated military campaign in the northwestern Syrian province, which experts think will include airstrikes and possibly chemical weapons, has the potential to turn into a huge humanitarian catastrophe. Nearly 3 million people live in the territory, more than half of them displaced from other parts of the country due to the war. It’s home to scores of civilians, rebels, and a powerful terrorist organization — and they don’t have anywhere else to go.

One reason Assad wants to launch a large-scale military attack now is that he’s hoping to defeat rebel groups before they consolidate power in Idlib, experts say. It’s also an area of the country that’s conceivably within his grasp.

“Idlib is the only territory left that is out of government control and can be feasibly recovered without starting an interstate war,” Faysal Itani, a Syria expert at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, told me.

Map of Idlib in Syria.
Map of Idlib in Syria.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

Assad’s military has started preparations for the offensive, including moving thousands of troops, armored units, and helicopters closer to the province over the past few weeks. Russia, Assad’s main backer outside the region, has deployed multiple missile-carrying ships and three dozen warplanes to the Mediterranean Sea, potentially to deter Western involvement. And the international community worries that fighters in Idlib may use chemical weapons.

Rhetoric has already started to heat up. Last Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called anti-government forces in Idlib “terrorists” and a “festering abscess” that needed to be “liquidated.”

But one of the most powerful actors in Idlib is a terrorist group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, which renounced its previous affiliation with al-Qaeda.

The comments — and the military buildup — have led top international officials to worry about an oncoming tragedy. “[T]here is a perfect storm coming up in front of our eyes potentially,” Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ top envoy for Syria, told reporters last Thursday.

President Donald Trump also expressed his concerns on Monday, warning that an assault on Idlib means “Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed.”

The question now is if countries involved in the Syrian conflict — mainly Russia and Turkey — can do anything to stop the offensive. Most experts think that’s unlikely. “Nobody really has the ability to straight-up stop the regime from what they’re really planning,” Shanna Kirschner, a Syria expert at Allegheny College, told me.

That means it’s highly likely Syria will see yet another uptick in humanitarian suffering as Assad tries to effectively wipe out rebel groups and win the war.

“Increasing hostilities will turn the growing desperation into misery,” Iolanda Jaquemet, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which tracks and helps alleviate humanitarian suffering in Syria, told me.

“Siege, starve, surrender”

Syrian relatives mourn during the funeral of Mohammed Ahmed Rahim in Idlib province on June 22, 2012.
Syrian relatives mourn during the funeral of Mohammed Ahmed Rahim in Idlib province on June 22, 2012.
Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian civil war was born out of the Arab Spring in 2011, as citizens protested the Assad regime. Assad cracked down on dissenters, leading to a full-scale fight that has since ravaged Syria and the region for seven years. The war continues as Syria — mainly backed by Russia and Iran — fights anti-government rebels supported by Turkey, among others.

The last reliable estimates from 2016 put the death toll at around 400,000 people, but the number is surely much higher now — especially since the war has raged even more over the past two years.

Indeed, attacking Idlib wouldn’t be the first time this year that the Assad regime launched a major offensive against a rebel stronghold. In February, for example, regime forces attacked — and eventually captured — Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus.

The Syrian government took control of the area by employing a strategy it’s used during much of the war. “The regime has been leading a ‘siege, starve, and surrender’ campaign for years,” Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War, told me in February when we discussed the Eastern Ghouta fight.

In practice, that means the Assad government purposely overwhelms opposition-held areas with attacks to make life for the civilian population unlivable. Assad’s forces destroy hospitals, schools, markets, and even mosques, so it’s nearly impossible for noncombatants to eat regular meals, receive medical attention, or pray where they want.

Assad used that tactic and others — like extrajudicial executions and torture — when he attacked Idlib during a two-week offensive in 2012. It’s likely the regime will commit similar atrocities if it launches a campaign in the coming days or weeks.

The regime uses the “siege, starve, surrender” strategy because it works: Rebels who don’t have food or medical provisions quickly lose the will or the ability to fight, and civilians in besieged areas often start cooperating with the government just to make it stop.

Assad’s forces already bombed and killed dozens of people in Idlib in early August, but it’s unclear exactly when the regime plans to start the full-scale attack.

There is, however, a slight possibility that Assad doesn’t go through with the offensive, if Russia or Turkey chooses to try to dissuade him.

How Russia and Turkey could stop the offensive — but probably won’t

Turkish troops patrolling the northern Syrian city of Manbij on June 20, 2018.
Turkish troops patrolling the northern Syrian city of Manbij on June 20, 2018.
Saher el Hacci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Neither Russia nor Turkey wants Idlib to become the next major humanitarian catastrophe.

Experts say Moscow doesn’t want the fighting in northwestern Syria to be a very long, drawn-out campaign. And Ankara doesn’t want to risk even more Syrian refugees flocking northward to join the 3.5 million it already hosts.

That, unexpectedly, puts them on the same side of this particular part of the conflict. (Again: Turkey supports anti-regime rebels, and Russia is the Assad regime’s main backer.) Analysts say it’s possible that both countries will try to strike a deal to remove civilians from the area before intense fighting begins.

“To the extent Moscow is earnestly engaging Ankara, it is probably to encourage the Turks to prompt civilian flight from heavily populated areas preemptively,” Fred Hof, President Obama’s special adviser for transition in Syria, told me.

That could conceivably alleviate some humanitarian suffering even as the war rages, but it’s unclear where the civilians would go or who would remove them from Idlib. In the past, Syrians living in war-torn areas of the country were sent to Idlib as part of surrender deals to the government. With most of the country west of the Euphrates River controlled by the government, it seems civilians in the province have no choice but to remain in the soon-to-be besieged area.

Russia and Iran, Syria’s other main supporter, could potentially stop Assad from attacking Idlib by vowing not to help his forces. “Assad cannot fight this offensive by himself. Not even close,” the Atlantic Council’s Itani told me, in part because they’ve been decimated throughout years of fighting. The regime has now gone so far as to enlist former rebels into its ranks.

But based on Lavrov’s comments and Moscow’s previous support for the Syrian government’s other atrocities, like denying the regime’s responsibility for chemical attacks, the Kremlin will likely fight along with Assad in Idlib.

Turkey, meanwhile, wants Syrians in Idlib to reject the terrorist group and negotiate a deal with the regime. That would effectively hand Idlib over to Assad — a likely outcome anyway — with less fighting.

In regard to the US, it has little to no influence in this matter. America’s roughly 2,000 troops in Syria aren’t in the western part of the country or in regime-controlled territory, US Central Command told me. Plus, US troops are in Syria (and Iraq) to fight ISIS — not participate in the Syrian civil war. Now US troops spend most of their time working with Kurdish forces to defeat ISIS in Syria.

So, to sum up, any chance of staving off the offensive comes down to both Russia and Turkey. Leaders of those countries will meet with Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan, on September 7 to discuss the conflict, possibly for the last time before the offensive. It’s possible they will strike some sort of humanitarian deal there before the assault begins in earnest.

But if there is no agreement, then millions of lives will soon be at risk.

Why humanitarian suffering in Idlib could be “catastrophic”

A man carries a wounded child out of a building following a car bomb explosion in the northern Syrian city of Idlib on May 26, 2018.
A man carries a wounded child out of a building following a car bomb explosion in the northern Syrian city of Idlib on May 26, 2018.
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

In multiple interviews, humanitarian officials assisting civilians in Idlib painted a bleak picture of the likely increased suffering to come.

“People already live in difficult conditions, particularly those who live in makeshift camps,” and have little access to basic necessities including access to food, water, and medical care. says the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Jaquemet.

Those who need medical attention will struggle. Jaquemet says eight of the 28 medical facilities in Idlib are entirely out of service. Many others function only at partial capacity because they may have little to no medicine or medical staff.

That means many Syrians who desperately need medical help will have to travel farther to find a doctor working in a standing facility — an especially dangerous endeavor in the middle of an active war zone.

Here’s just one example of how this plays out: In January, the only maternity hospital in Maarrat al-Nu’man, a city in Idlib province, was destroyed in airstrikes that killed at least five people. Jaquemet says around 90 percent of the medical equipment received damage, and now women and children in the area struggle to receive gynecological and other care. Many now have to travel elsewhere to receive that treatment.

It’s also possible that Syrian and Russian warplanes bomb more medical facilities, making it even harder for citizens to receive necessary treatment. “In case of attacks on the south of the province, we will lose major hospitals, and hospitals close to the borders won’t be able to respond,” says Mohamad Katoub, an advocacy manager for the Syrian American Medical Society, a medical relief organization that works to heal those injured or harmed in some way in the war.

The government also doesn’t provide electricity to the province, which means millions of people must rely on generators for power. But it’s hard to install generators during fighting — and it’s even more difficult to provide reliable service for so many.

The problem is made worse because people in Idlib can’t really leave. The Turkish border to the north is closed, and the Assad regime controls areas to the east, south, and west. The only way they can reliably get out of the province is if Russia, Turkey, and Iran strike a deal and offer them a pathway out.

That, as of now, doesn’t seem likely — which means many should expect more strife in Syria. It’s clear that the humanitarian consequences of Assad’s planned attack, Hof told me, “will be catastrophic.”

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