Half a million people have been displaced for two months in north-western Syria, where Bashar Al-Assad and his Russian ally are continuing an offensive against the rebels and the jihadists, the Organization announced on Tuesday 4 February United Nations (UN).
"Since 1st December 520,000 people displaced (…), the majority of them – 80% – are women and children "David Swanson, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Since December 2019, the Idlib province and its surroundings have been almost daily the target of air strikes and bombardments of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, supported by the Russian aviation, which succeeded in retaking dozens of cities and localities.
The violence has resulted in massive displacement of populations in this ultimate great stronghold of jihadists and rebels, with civilians fleeing their homes to seek refuge in relatively unspoiled areas further north, often near the Turkish border. This exodus is one of the largest since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, which has thrown more than half the pre-war population – more than 20 million – into exile.
Disastrous humanitarian situation
In recent days, AFP correspondents have seen processions of cars and vans carrying civilians fleeing the fighting daily, carrying mattresses, kitchen utensils, blankets and jute rugs with them on the roads of the region.
"The almost daily violence (…) have caused unjustifiable suffering for hundreds of thousands of people living in the area ", said Swanson. "This latest wave of displacement exacerbates an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground", he lamented.
According to him, the majority of the displaced fled the "Front zones" in the south of Idlib province. Most go to urban areas and IDP camps in northwest Idlib, or to territories in the northern region of neighboring Aleppo, near the border with Turkey.
Half of the estimated three million people in the Idlib region are already displaced, having fled from other rebel strongholds reclaimed in recent years by the regime.
Confrontation between Turkish and Syrian soldiers
The province and parts of neighboring regions of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia are dominated by jihadists from Hayat Tahrir Al-Cham (HTS, former Syrian branch of Al-Qaida). Rebel groups are also present there.
Neighboring Turkey, which supports some rebels and deploys troops in northwestern Syria, takes a dim view of the regime’s progress. On Monday, unprecedented fierce fighting pitted Turkish and Syrian soldiers in the region, one of the most serious confrontations between the two sides since the start of the conflict. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised Tuesday to continue "With the same determination" :
" The system of government (Syrian) try to gain ground in Idlib by displacing innocent people who are heading for our border. We will not give the regime the opportunity to gain ground, because otherwise it would increase our burden. "
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for a "Cessation of hostilities" between Turkey and Syria, before "An escalation" leading to "A situation completely out of control".
Ankara said five Turkish soldiers and three civilian personnel were killed on Monday. On the Syrian side, 13 soldiers were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH). The official Syrian news agency SANA has denied any death.
The Idlib region was already the scene of a major offensive by the regime between April and August 2019, which killed nearly a thousand civilians, according to the OSDH. The Idlib front represents the last major strategic battle for the Assad regime, which now controls more than 70% of the territory after having multiplied the victories, with the crucial help of Russia, against the jihadists and rebels.
Even though the pre-regime forces have returned to the Kurdish regions of the northeast of the country, the Kurdish minority continues to exercise a large autonomy there. Areas in northern Syria, also held by Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies, continue to escape Damascus.