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With a new offensive on the horizon, Idlib is the Gaza of Syria

June 15, 2021 at 6:47 pm

A Syrian boy looks at blood stains and shoes left behind next to a charred car, hit in reported bombardment by government forces on the village of Iblin in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province, on June 10, 2021 [ABDULAZIZ KETAZ/AFP via Getty Images]

In Syria’s north-west, a renewed military offensive has apparently been long overdue. Since the very signing of the ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey on behalf of the Syrian regime and opposition for the halting of the assault on Idlib, predictions abounded on how it would break down within a matter of weeks or months.

Syrian refugees and Assad - Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

Syrian refugees and Assad – Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

It has now been almost a year and a half, however, and despite having been violated numerous times by Russian and regime forces, it has managed to hold by avoiding a large-scale military offensive as was seen before.

The cracks in that façade of a ceasefire have gradually been widening, though. Over the past few months, hundreds of strikes were conducted, and in the first two weeks of the holy month of Ramadan alone, over 200 strikes violated the deal. The latest violations occurred throughout the past week, when the Assad regime and Russia conducted a series of airstrikes on southern Idlib and the surrounding areas, killing dozens and wounding more.

Despite the fact that the Syrian opposition groups have not yet made a major retaliation to the strikes, the past year has seen moves which showed mounting anticipation of a renewed conflict in the north-west. The Turkish military’s dramatic build-up of troops and armoured vehicles in Idlib, the Russian military’s expansion of nearby air bases, and the rebel militias’ creation of military ‘operation rooms’ have all indicated the incoming assault that everyone has expected till now.

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The impact of these recent strikes can already be seen, according to the Idlib-based war reporter Abdussamed Dagul, who told me that they have caused “a new wave of refugees who had settled back in their villages and towns in the Jabal Zawiya area in the southern countryside of Idlib.”

That new wave of refugees, Dagul said, “will cause another crisis here in Idlib and overfill the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps in the Turkish-Syrian border region, and the influx of refugees to Turkey and Europe could start again if the situation escalates.” He does not appear to be wrong, as the recent strikes have indeed already further displaced over 1,800.

With regards to the likelihood of a renewed conflict, Dagul pointed out that there are so far “no military brigades and reinforcement of the Assad militants moving towards the frontlines with Idlib.” He warned, however, that “the increasing of bombardment could be a sign of a new offensive maybe in the coming months after summer before winter.”

It is difficult to predict when such an event can occur in the often-unpredictable conflict in Syria, and it has been speculated whether Turkey – a primary player there along with Russia – would stand up to Assad as it did last year when it severely punished regime forces with its UAVs prior to the ceasefire.

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Firstly, despite its reinforcements, the Turkish military withdrew from many of its outposts and bases in north-west Syria late last year, citing strategic reasons for doing so. Secondly, Ankara is as usual more concerned with the threat posed by the Kurdish militias such as the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), having recently struck their positions in northern Syria.

Attacks against 4 hospitals in Idlib, have left more than 40,000 people without healthcare in a conflict zone - Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

Attacks against 4 hospitals in Idlib, have left more than 40,000 people without healthcare in a conflict zone – Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

There is also the issue of the hundreds of residential structures that Turkey and charities have constructed within Idlib for the displaced Syrians there who number over a million. In October last year, for example, Turkey’s Diyanet Foundation built over 600 homes for Syrian families in the province, and as recently as this month an Istanbul municipality built 450 briquette houses there for IDPs.

“Since the so-called ceasefire deal which is often violated by the Russians…many NGOs had started to build housing complexes which are near the Turkish-Syrian border region,” Dagul said. Although he predicted that a new offensive “would not much affect it [reconstruction] as Idlib has gone through war since the past 4-5 years anyway,” he acknowledged that the organisations building the structures “might see these projects as not beneficial anymore as the area is getting too tight and dangerous for the civilians to live, that is if the Russians start another offensive.”

With the ongoing war in Syria having already caused the massive destruction of civilian and medical infrastructure at the hands of the regime and its allies, it would come as no surprise if a renewed offensive on Idlib results in the similar destruction of these new housing projects.

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The opposition-held north-west of Syria faces much the same problem as the besieged Gaza Strip does in Palestine: a crumbling and vulnerable infrastructure, dependency on electricity supplies in the hands of a foreign neighbour, a poverty-stricken population without adequate healthcare, the ever-present possibility of airstrikes, and an enemy waiting at the gates.

Most of all, the two areas share the fact that the reconstruction projects taking place in them may soon be pointless, as Israel’s almost-annual assault on Gaza and Assad’s incoming offensive on Idlib mean that such projects are ever at risk of destruction.

Idlib and its surrounding opposition-held areas are, in many ways, the Gaza of Syria,

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.