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Life on hold in Syria's Idlib amid Assad bombing campaign

Life grinds to a halt in Syria's Idlib amid Assad bombing campaign
7 min read
06 December, 2023
In-depth: After an attack on a military academy in October by unknown perpetrators, the Syrian regime launched a widespread assault on northwest Syria - the most violent in years - stoking fears of a ground invasion and more displacement.
Ruins in Idlib [Hadia Al Mansour]

Daily life is on hold in much of northwest Syria despite the so-called truce between the Syrian regime and opposition factions in Idlib, which aimed to stop the latest bombing campaign that began in early October and officially lasted five days.

During that time, the Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets) documented 46 civilian deaths, including 13 children and 9 women, while over 210 were injured in the attacks. Since then, hundreds more civilians have been killed.

The Syrian Civil Defence described the escalation between 4-8 October as "dangerous and systematic". During the assault, regime forces used internationally prohibited incendiary weapons and cluster munitions and aggravated the state of instability in the region, prompting a new wave of displacement, they stated. 

Regime attacks on Idlib ongoing

Despite the truce, the Syrian regime has continued its attacks across northwest Syria. On 2 December, a school in Aafes village in east Idlib was bombed, killing three students and a teacher. In November, the Syrian Civil Defence reported that 15 civilians had been killed in several attacks across Idlib, and 57 injured.

Numerous towns and villages have seen an exodus of residents due to regime bombardment, including Idlib, Ariha, Jisr al-Shughur, Sarmin, and Darat Izza, and villages in the Jabal al-Zawiya region as well as in the countryside in western Idlib governorate.

Mulham Al Bakour, 39, an internally displaced person (IDP) has not considered going back to Jisr al-Shughur as he is scared it will be targeted again. He doesn't "trust the criminal regime or the truces it has announced, as it has revealed its deceit and insincerity throughout the years of war".

He added: "We got out alive after a bloody day where the regime forces intensively targeted densely populated areas of Jisr al-Shughur - the residential neighbourhoods, markets and the essential facilities, the hospitals and medical clinics. They didn't even have mercy on the […] schools".

Mulham moved with his family of seven to a shelter in Killi village, northwest Idlib. His discomfort is obvious as he describes the shelter as crowded and noisy, with children's screams filling the air. Men and women are also segregated in these shelters – meaning that family members are separated from one another during their stay.

Tens of thousands of Syrians across Idlib province have been displaced once more due to renewed regime and Russian bombardment since 5 October [Hadia Al Mansour]

More mass displacement

The Syrian Response Coordinators team documented the displacement of around 79,000 civilians in northwest Syria and stated that continued aggressive operations will generate new waves of refugees in the midst of humanitarian challenges posed by the approach of winter.

They said the constant attacks across the region had seen education grind to a halt, depriving around 400,000 students of education. They have also disrupted the functioning of around 15 medical facilities, including hospitals, and prevented over two million civilians from accessing medical services.

Economic activity has also ground to a halt, reflecting the fear people in the region have of renewed bombardment at any moment in which marketplaces could be targeted once more. For this reason, most shops are still closed, as well as markets and restaurants.

Homs military academy attack

The brutal bombardment of northwest Syria in early October was sparked by an attack on the Homs Military Academy on 5 October which left over 100 people dead.

However, many believe the regime and Iranian militias allied with it carried out the attack to give the regime an excuse to assault the non-regime-held northwest, to deflect from the deteriorating internal situation – both economic and social - in regime-held Syria, suggested Ahmad Husseinat, head of the political authority in Idlib.

Husseinat pointed out that the bombardment didn't just target the front lines, or the outskirts of towns which were close by. Instead, the assault intensified and moved into the interior of many towns and villages, as well as the countryside west of Aleppo, and hit many residential areas and public facilities.

Regarding the impact of the latest campaign on agreements in place, especially Astana (the Astana talks on Syria began in 2017 and established "de-escalation" zones in opposition-held areas), Husseinat doesn't think there will be changes in the near future.

This is because the Turks and Russians are unlikely to push for changes to the situation on the ground in light of the Russia-Ukraine war, and the current war between Hamas and Israel. The region is on the verge of explosion, he says, so he believes that Astana will hold, for now.

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Syria: Future federalism?

Regarding the future, Husseinat believes Syria is heading towards federalism or decentralisation, particularly after the Suweida uprising, and the self-evident "impossibility" of a Syrian-Syrian solution – because there is no will at the top for changing the current balance of power in Syria.

For now, Husseinat calls on regional officials to adopt measures to protect Syrians in northwest Syria from new military action and the annexation of more regions, and to discuss ways of remaining steadfast in the light of weak international support and backing for the Syrian issue.

Husseinat stresses that the lack of accountability of the Assad regime and Russia for their ongoing violations has increased the pace of their crimes, with the international community indifferent to their attacks.

He fears the Assad regime will exploit the world’s preoccupation with Gaza to resume bombing Idlib – as they have acted similarly in the past.

Fears of a ground invasion

Political activist Hussam Abdo said the most recent Russian escalation in Idlib and the increasing airstrikes, have provoked fears Moscow and the regime could take advantage of the current situation to launch a ground operation to seize control of the M4 international motorway connecting Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

His fears were prompted when Russian forces intensified their air raids in areas of northwestern Syria after a period of relative calm following the violent bombardment after opposition factions were blamed for the military academy attack.

Russian raids targeted the spinning mill in the industrial zone on the Idlib-Sarmin highway, east of Idlib. Russian aircraft also bombed the outskirts of several towns in the province.

Abdo said these operations could potentially snowball into a ground offensive during which the regime could seize control of the rural southern areas of Idlib - starting from Jabal al-Zawiya, passing through the Al-Ghab plain in northwestern Hama and the western Idlib countryside, reaching to the northern Latakia countryside. This would redraw the map of the "de-escalation" zones and the region.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) revealed that a Turkish military convoy loaded with logistical equipment had gone to the front line in Jabal al-Zawiya, passing through the Kafr Lusin crossing from Turkey into the "de-escalation zone", to reinforce the opposition front lines within its area of influence. Turkey also sent similar military reinforcements to the outskirts of Aafes village, east of Idlib, suggesting Turkey also fears a possible military operation.

Since the 2020 Moscow ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey, the areas controlled by the two parties haven't changed, and attacks have been confined to infiltration attempts and bombing operations.

A security official in Idlib, Omran Al Bakour, said that they had given orders to reduce the number of residents in populated areas in anticipation of attacks "as civilians must not be sacrificed for military motives".

Amid Qatini, a member of the Syrian Civil Defence, told The New Arab, that their teams had faced huge challenges reaching the targeted sites to treat the wounded and recover the bodies, due to the regime forces' monitoring of the area and their repeated targeting of the roads.

There were also reconnaissance aircraft monitoring all movement, as well as doubled attacks and the intensive bombing of town centres, markets, and civilian neighbourhoods. Some Syrian Civil Defence centres were also targeted – signalling the intentional killing of first responders to prevent them from saving lives.

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Qatini points out that this escalation imposes a state of instability and new displacement for communities that have not yet recovered from the devastating earthquake disaster that struck the region on 6 February.

The region's suffering and humanitarian needs are increasing against a backdrop of continuing political inertia when it comes to international action to push for Resolution 2254's implementation and a political solution aimed at peace in line with the aspirations of the Syrian people, he added.

This will be even more disastrous as winter sets in, bringing flooding, snowfall, and blocked roads.

Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine

Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko