BEIRUT – The Syrian government’s recent offensive in Idlib has made the northwestern province a “real area of crisis,” Cole Bockenfeld of the International Rescue Committee told Syria Deeply.
The Syrian government’s escalated attacks on Idlib have cleared 300 villages in southern parts of the province of their inhabitants, displacing around 250,000 people in recent months, said Bockenfeld, who is the IRC’s senior officer for international programs, policy and advocacy.
The Syrian government stepped up its attacks on Idlib in late December, seizing a string of towns and villages from rebel groups including the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance. Pro-government forces have also been fighting rebels in southern Idlib and the adjacent territory in northern Hama since at least October, advancing on the strategic Abu Zuhour airbase to secure routes in and out of Aleppo city that local rebel groups periodically target.
Syria Deeply spoke to Bockenfeld about the humanitarian implications of the ongoing campaign, the consequence of an expanded offensive and what the escalation in fighting means for the Russia-backed de-escalation zone agreement.
Syria Deeply: What does the recent escalation in Syria tell us about the state of the conflict?
Cole Bockenfeld: I think there is a narrative that started to take hold over the last year or so that the conflict in Syria is de-escalating. Frankly, that’s not what we’ve seen in terms of the levels of violence and the impact on civilians on the ground. From the data that we’ve looked at, an average of 6,500 people were displaced every day last year, and a total of 1.8 million people were displaced over the course of the entire year. If anything, people may argue from a military perspective that the conflict lines and offensives are winding down and so on. But really, on the ground, there’s as much violence, if not more, than ever.
Syria Deeply: Idlib has recently become a major flashpoint. What are some of the main humanitarian concerns in the province?
Bockenfeld: This is a real area of crisis that we’ve been watching closely. We’ve seen, just over the last few months, more than 250,000 people displaced. What’s important about Idlib is it is one of these so-called de-escalation zones. Many people from Aleppo and people from other parts of the country fled and went to Idlib, partly because they were told they would be safe there. What this new offensive shows is that that this promise wasn’t kept. We’re seeing people flee violence now for the second or even the third time, to try and get away from the war.
People in this area are really desperate, especially those who have been displaced multiple times. Two-thirds of them are living in makeshift tents that are unfit for winter. A lot of people are fleeing with very little possessions, and fleeing to very difficult areas where there’s not any running water, any electricity, any source of livelihood or income, and so on. Our teams and our partners on the ground are responding as best they can in terms of providing emergency healthcare, livelihood assistance, emergency cash and so on.
Syria Deeply: There is a possibility that current military operations in Idlib are only a prelude to a larger battle for the rebel bastion. What would be the humanitarian implications of such an attack?
Bockenfeld: That would be a huge concern, if there was a larger operation where you have more than 2 million people really caught in the middle. Especially with the border with Turkey being closed, those people would be really caught with nowhere to run and nowhere to flee to. That would be of huge concern to us in terms of where civilians could flee to and, frankly, in this area of the country, if they would run out of space to go.
Syria Deeply: Are any preparations being made on the ground for such an escalation?
Bockenfeld: At the moment, our teams are responding to the displacements within Idlib, and meeting people where they are. If there was a further escalation, I think that would obviously be a bigger picture conversation, because it would of course involve the Turkish government, and their response – both in terms of how they’re coordinating with the humanitarian groups that they support and how they would respond to control over the border. A potential step would be to negotiate with the Turkish government in order to allow for civilians to cross the border. But above all, we remind parties to the conflict, and indeed the whole international community, of the primacy of civilian protection as outlined under international humanitarian law.
Syria Deeply: What patterns of displacement are we currently seeing in Idlib?
Bockenfeld: We’ve seen familiar patterns in Idlib that we see in other parts of the country. Displacement is driven primarily by airstrikes. This is not to say that small-arms fire and mortar fire aren’t a real fear for civilians, but we do see these mass waves of displacement from places where there’s a real concerted airstrike campaign.
So far, what we’re seeing is that Syrian government advances have moved on the eastern front of the province. As a result, people have fled farther into Idlib and into the west and into the north, to try and get away from the violence. I think around 360 villages have been completely emptied of civilians.
Also, the number of displacements is still going up. I think about 10 days ago it was at 190,000 displaced from Idlib, and today that number is 250,000. By no means has that stopped.
It is still unclear at this point whether the Syrian government and allied forces will continue pushing further into Idlib. It doesn’t seem that is the case, and so at least for now people are able to settle and get to safety in these camps, at least temporarily. We and others are calling for a cease-fire and the violence to end, so that those people can stay safe where they are.
Syria Deeply: What makes you think the government’s offensive won’t move deeper into Idlib?
Bockenfeld: We’re watching closely. The main front lines have not pushed further west. There seems to be some mixed signals in terms of how the offensive on the ground may develop, and of course, a lot of the attention has shifted further north to Afrin. I can’t say for sure that that is the case, but we are hopeful that surge in violence will stop at that point, but we’re watching it closely to see if that’s true.
Syria Deeply: Does the escalation in Idlib point to the failure of the de-escalation zone agreement?
Bockenfeld: Absolutely. As a humanitarian organization, we obviously would support any kind of agreement that led to a reduction in violence. Turkey, Iran and Russia – three parties to the conflict – claimed that the de-escalation zones would lead to a decline in violence, and that this would somehow increase humanitarian access and humanitarian aid.
We have seen neither of these things happen, because the de-escalation zones have been used for strategic military purposes. The arrangement allowed the Syrian government and their allies to increase and escalate pressure and attacks on some areas of the country, while de-escalating pressure and violence in others, not necessarily with the goal of leading to the long-term cease-fires these were held up to be.
Frankly, what we’re seeing is that there’s not a real intent to decrease violence and to move these parts of the country into some sort of long-term or permanent cease-fire.
The answers have been edited for length and clarity.