The bombardment of Idlib by Syrian regime forces over the past few weeks has been relentless; the long anticipated offensive on the city in northern Syria has arrived with devastating results. A massacre of gargantuan proportions awaits as air strikes hit homes, schools and hospitals. More than 120 civilians in Idlib have been killed by Russian and Syrian regime air strikes over the first two weeks of the bombardment, and more than 180,000 have been newly displaced as they flee from barrel bombs.
Idlib is currently a refugee centre within Syria; it has absorbed most of the internally displaced persons and provided them with new homes, with nearly 4 million Syrian citizens living there. People who have had their lives torn apart and have had to escape bombardment and bloodshed are already anticipating further violence, with some preparing to flee for the second or even third time in just a few short years.
According to British surgeon David Nott who has visited northern Syria on multiple occasions for humanitarian reasons, 12 hospitals were destroyed in the first 10 days of May and there is considerable evidence that the Assad regime is engaged in the systematic targeting of hospitals and healthcare centres to terrorise and punish civilians who have fled areas controlled by Damascus. The destruction of any form of healthcare and emergency services is clearly the goal of the regime. Civilians who have “deserted the regime” can die of their injuries is Assad’s apparent rationale. The irony is lost on no one that Assad himself was once a doctor but is now more akin to a butcher, destroying hospitals as opposed to saving the people within them.
The potential taking of Idlib would signify the regime’s re-conquest of the Western Syrian corridor and demonstrate Assad’s so called “victory”. This is a farcical, pyrrhic victory when the Assad regime currently just controls a “rump state” which is both smaller and weaker than the pre-uprising Syria and has in a way given up sovereignty to both Russia and Iran.
Large swathes of Syria remain uninhabited with some areas in ruins and resembling ghost towns. The regime doesn’t even bother to repair the damage caused or rebuild the areas; it leaves them – for now at least – as the horrific, visible consequence of going against Damascus, and acting as a deterrent for anyone else. The slogan “Assad or we burn the country” which was scrawled in graffiti in many places by the loyalist Shabiha (state sponsored militias) during the early days of the uprising unfortunately rings true. Parts of Syria with revolutionary zeal have been obliterated with no immediate plans for rebuilding. This arrogant belief of Assad has led to untold horrors and the ruin of a nation yet he is still somehow viewed as the legitimate ruler of the country who unfortunately still enjoys the privileges of UN membership.
A political resolution is impossible while the perpetrator and the root of the problem – Bashar Al-Assad – remains in power. The paralysis of the UN Security Council is nothing new. As long as Russia sees fit to back Assad then he is granted political and legal cover at an international level proving that international law has a long way to go before it is able to hold rogue regimes to account. Even former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that the Security Council has failed Syria. It is difficult to foresee Russia not using its veto to block any attempt to refer the Syrian regime to the International Criminal Court but recent developments in the case of Myanmar and the Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh offer a potential legal path to charge the Syrian regime with crimes against humanity.
Idlib is holding out for now, but when considering the current onslaught by a regime that has been proven to use chemical weapons — and a report suggested that Assad used chemical weapons in northern Latakia as recently as last weekend — the worst is to be feared. If this slaughter goes on in Idlib, it will be a huge humanitarian disaster. The effects won’t be limited to the four million civilians in the city; it will lead to consequences as far away as Europe, with another wave of refugees potentially heading across the Mediterranean.
The city of Idlib must not be allowed to fall to Assad, and every effort must be made to ensure that he and his regime are held accountable for the crimes committed against the Syrian people. We may one day view Idlib as a flashpoint within the Syrian conflict; it is imperative that history does not repeat itself as it has so many times within this eight-year conflict. The binary choice between Assad and burning the country must not be allowed to become an enduring reality.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.