“People in Idlib can stay home and look death in the eye, or try to cross the Turkish border in search of security and a better life,” says Syrian Mustafa Dahnon of the Turkish border. He also captures a short video that he distributes on Twitter. Under the motto “From Idlib to Berlin,” thousands of people from the Syrian province joined the march to the Turkish border over the weekend to call on the international community for action. They feel left out of the world.
Assad’s “decisive blow”
For two months, Assad and Russia’s army have been bombing the population in Idlib. The province in the northwestern part of the country is the last bastion of rebels and extremists.
Assad is determined to put this area under control. His army is stationed in the area with the support of the Russian Air Force. They have already conquered dozens of settlements, including the city of Maarat an-Numan. He was so bombarded that there were almost no living people left.
Assad considers this offensive a “decisive fight”. The complete destruction of the infrastructure is also clearly envisaged. “A lot of hospitals are affected, some are partially destroyed, others completely,” says Christian Rinders of Doctors Without Borders. The injured are less likely to see a doctor and the consequences are fatal, “says Reinders, who is the coordinator for the organization in North Idlib.
“The further people have to travel to get medical attention, the more likely they are to become worse or even die.” In the southern parts of the province, no clinics were left. Ariha Hospital has recently been hit there, with at least 10 civilians killed in the attack. Moscow denies being involved.
The purpose of Turkey
Assad, backed by Russia, has set out to conquer the last territories still under the control of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham rebels. The Damascus government says it wants to destroy the jihadists. Hayat Tahrir ash Sham is the successor of the Nusra Front, which is an al-Qaeda branch in Syria. According to United States Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffries, Syrian military units and Russian air forces have struck more than 200 air strikes against civilians in recent days.
Turkey, which supports Idlib rebels, has built 12 provincial observation posts that were actually supposed to monitor armistice. But several different armistice attempts agreed between Russia and Turkey have already failed.
“Erdogan is trying to play the role of defender of opposition forces in Syria, but the commitment in Idlib is also a way to show that Turkey is claiming a seat near the table for talks that will later discuss Syria’s future,” he says Christian Brakel, who runs the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Istanbul.
“Erdogan’s main concern is that more Syrians could try to seek rescue in neighboring Turkey,” Brakel says. According to the UN, a total of 390,000 people have left Idlib since the beginning of December 2019. The total number of expulsions in the last nine months is likely to reach 750,000. The “March to the Border” organized these days was supposed to be mostly symbolic, but some of its participants hoped to make it to Turkey, although the border is officially a closed. “And this is not ruled out, Brackel says, because some border guards accept bribes.
However, many people in Idlib cannot afford to bribe, so they remain in refugee camps along the border – in the rain and cold, with no hope of medical assistance. UN warns of danger of humanitarian catastrophe.
In a few weeks, nine years have passed since the start of the war in Syria. However, one thing is clear now: dictator Bashar al-Assad is the victorious victor in this war. But in order to regain power over all Syria, he must also control Idlib. And in the attacks on Idlib, government forces and their Russian allies clearly do not distinguish between civilians and extremists.