People of Idlib won’t surrender despite renewed onslaught

People of Idlib won’t surrender despite renewed onslaught

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A Syrian boy is evacuated after a regime airstrike on Ariha town in Syria’s last major opposition bastion of Idlib on January 15, 2020. (AFP)

A new flare-up in the Syrian civil war is taking place in Idlib — the landlocked northern province that is the last holdout against the Assad regime. 

More than 27,000 were displaced in just a few days last week, and as many as 400,000 civilians in total in the last month alone. This is out of a population of about 4 million. Over the ongoing crisis, the region has accumulated about 1,150 internal refugee camps, to say nothing of the close to 4 million Syrians who have made their way into Turkey or the other millions who fled to Jordan, Lebanon or toward Europe. 

But the most remarkable thing about Idlib is the sheer brazenness with which the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies are committing war crimes. More than 60 civilian hospitals have been bombed since last May just in Idlib, with hundreds of medical workers killed. Starvation sieges are once again the go-to tactic for the Syrian regime and Russia, just in case there was any doubt that this war is being waged against an entire civilian population, and not some alleged “terrorist elements.”

Access to the region by UN humanitarian bodies or other international community actors is once again being restricted, close to being shut down entirely. Indeed, the Assad government is now insisting that all humanitarian aid to the region must go through the very armed forces that are carrying out these sieges, which are illegal under international law. 

The play is the same as we have seen throughout the Syrian civil war since Russia joined the fray: The aim is the complete submission of the entire population — men, women and children — to the Assad state apparatus. This is the same state apparatus that is now carrying out reprisals for previous resistance in the areas of Syria where the rebellion has already been suppressed. 

The aim is the complete submission of the entire population — men, women and children — to the Assad state apparatus.

The people of Idlib are being given a single choice: To submit. And when they do, they can expect to be further brutalized by the victorious government forces, as well as any pro-government local warlord with an axe to grind. Or if the intelligence agencies of the central government happen to take an interest in them, they can expect to be carted off to the regime’s notorious and deadly political prisons. 

Meanwhile, Turkey, which has been supportive of the rebels in Idlib — many of whom are ethnically Turkic rather than Arab, and most of whom have close family relations to the regions just over the border in Turkey — has sealed its borders, fearing another huge influx of refugees while it still struggles to handle the millions of Syrians who have previously crossed the border. And Ankara may not lend military support to the same extent it used to, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to develop his alliance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

The end result is 4 million people caught between a Russian rock and a sealed Turkish border, and in the firing line of the Assad regime and its allies, such as Hezbollah. And not one international actor has the capacity or intention to do anything about it. The UN, in particular, seems to have given up even trying to pretend it is looking for a solution. The side with the upper hand, Putin and Bashar Assad, is certainly not looking for solutions. They are looking for “complete victory.”

But if they are hoping Idlib will just surrender, they have a while yet to wait. Knowing what we all know about how the previous rebel areas have fared under restored Assad regime control, conditions in Idlib are now scarcely worse than what they would be should they surrender. Fuel and food might be more readily available, but just about every person in the region could reasonably expect to be targeted for arbitrary detention or even extrajudicial execution. The people of Idlib, many of them survivors of other regime sieges like Aleppo, are not fighting for victory — they are fighting to survive. And for that reason they will continue to fight.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim​
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