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Nowhere to run to: What options for the people of Idlib if Assad's forces reclaim control?

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The destroyed building of Nabd Al-Hayat hospital that was hit by an air strike is seen in Hass, Idlib province, Syria May 6, 2019 ARAB24/Reuters TV via REUTERS

In Syria's northern Idlib province, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and his allies have kept up their air and ground assault in an effort to take back the last remaining rebel stronghold. But while the bombardment has eased since 12 May, the situation on the ground is increasingly worse as resources to care for those fleeing the conflict are pushed to their limit.


This latest escalation by Assad’s forces and Russian support have pushed thousands to flee into the northern camps.

As it stands, Idlib is home to some three million people.

1.3 million of them are internally displaced persons, hailing from different parts of the country.

Last rebel stronghold

As was the case with previous rebel strongholds, weeks of relentless bombardment have been conducted with the aim of taking back these regions.

But unlike previous operations, those in the rebel-controlled areas, whether civilians or rebels themselves, have nowhere else to go.

“The people are quite exhausted and tired” says Marwa Awad, the communications officer for the World Food Programme in Syria.

She adds that the current situation in Idlib remains “quite dire” and fears should the escalation of fighting continue, there will inevitably be more displacement and more pressure on humanitarian workers.

“We know through our partners on the ground that many families successfully reached the camps but the camps are extremely congested, about three to four families per tent up in north Idlib.”

But she adds that many have been stranded, “living in the wild under olive trees, without shelter”.

With the coordinated help of the WFP and workers on the ground, those people will also get help including “emergency food packages and hot meals”.

Ismail Alabdullah is an activist and volunteer with the White Helmets (also known as the Syria Civil Defence), a medical emergency service that grew out of the war in 2014.

It undertakes medical evacuations and search and rescue operations following bombardments.

Speaking to RFI from Ad-Dan in northern Idlib he says that “most of the towns are empty…people are fleeing from there and few go to the streets in the north countryside….you can see people lying down and they will live under the trees without any houses, there are no houses for them, there are no shelters, no NGOs are responding to their needs”.

He clarifies that the NGOs active in the area cannot respond to “this huge number”. Resources are already stretched thin, “so the situation is miserable for the people”.

Evacuation? To where?

Unlike previous operations in the rebel strongholds of Eastern Aleppo, Homs and Eastern Ghouta, the Damascus government, along with international assistance, provided a means of evacuation for those caught in the fighting.

But this time, there is nowhere else for them to go.

“The bombing...[means] big problems will be in the future if they flee” says the White Helmet volunteer. “There is no [other] place; this is the last stronghold, last area for the people in Syria and [after] there's no place to go.”

In a video posted on the Hams News Facebook site (later tweeted), soldiers belonging to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA, Assad’s forces), notes no green buses will be provided this time.

Green buses were used during previous evacutation operations.

And if the people are not evacuated, the question becomes what happens to everyone who have visibly been working against Assad’s forces?

“This is the biggest and most dangerous question for all people and for all the countries” says Alabdullah. “We’re this big number of people and activists and armoured rebels... where they will go?”

Many others, including himself, believe Assad’s forces will only take back a part of Idlib. In doing so, the pressure will be taken off Turkey which fears a surge of people enterning its territory.

Returning to life

In areas where Assad’s forces have regained control, life is not any easier.

Awad notes that while organisations like the WFP continue to deliver food, helping people rebuild their homes is another challenge.

“I personally met with one family that had recently returned to their home city of Homs. And unfortunately they returned to rubble. Everything has been decimated, razed to the ground” describes the WFP officer.

“I actually happen to walk into the neighbourhood when the father of this family was hauling bags of cement and I asked him 'what are you doing?' He said 'look, I’m trying to rebuild my home, physically from scratch. But I don't have money, I don't have a job. The prices of cement and steel are expensive'”.

She adds that this father is spending about 80 percent of his savings on his food. So extra money to build housing is hard to come by.

International community

Already the current ceasefire in place brokered by Turkish and Russian forces in Sochi in September continues to be violated.

After eight years of war, civilians are still bearing the brunt of the fighting.

The only answer to the suffering is to stop the fighting, accroding to both Alabdullah and Awad.

“The best option would be for the conflict to end but also for the ceasefire [to be] respected” says the WFP worker. “And this is why we're calling on all parties of the conflict to make sure that A: civilians are not stuck in the line of fire and B: [that] we as humanitarians have the safe passage and access to reach them to provide them with whatever they need to survive”.

On the ground in Idlib, Alabdullah adds that more pressure on the “big shots who can call the shots” needs to be exerted for them to “make the decision to stop this…this catastrophic situation for the people”.