Millions of residents in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, the final stronghold of Syrian oppositions, are concerned about Bashar al-Assad’s possible attack on the city.
The expected ground attack is feared to trigger a mass exodus of refugees fleeing towards the Turkish border and European countries.
The following is a list of frequently asked questions regarding the ongoing calamity in Idlib:
1- Where is Idlib?
Located near the Turkish border city of Hatay, Syria’s northwestern Idlib province is home to more than 3 million Syrians, many of whom fled from other cities following attacks by regime forces.
Idlib shares 130 kilometers (82 miles) borderline with Turkey and is bordered by Syrian province of Aleppo to the east; Aleppo’s Afrin district to the northeast; Hama province to the south and Lattakia province to the northwest.
The rebel-controlled town has been under heavy air bombardment since October 2015 when Russia began to actively take part in the civil war.
2- How many civilians are living in Idlib?
Idlib has been hosting the highest number of refugees, roughly 1.3 million, as it is a city bordering Turkey and is relatively safe since the beginning of the war. Along with 2.4 million permanent residents, administrative records show that Idlib currently houses nearly 4 million civilians within its borders.
After attacks by the Assad regime and the forced migration, the population in the city has increased to nearly 4 million, including 2.4 million residents.
3- Could a large migration wave occur?
It is feared that a possible military campaign towards Idlib might trigger a wave of migration containing hundreds of thousands of people. Turkey, the EU and United Nations have announced in statements that a possible operation on Idlib might give birth to a fresh rush of migration.
In addition, Stephane Dujarric, the UN Secretary-General’s spokesman, Wednesday said: “All parties are responsible for the protection of the civilians, under the international laws. I hope everything will be done to prevent a greater humanitarian plight.”
4- Where does the Assad regime prepare?
With the aim of seizing the Idlib region, the regime has been sending military equipment to the frontlines near rural Latakia and northern Hama for more than two months. The Assad regime maintains the preparations, which has paced up recently, in Abu al-Duhur Airport, Skayiybiye of northern Hama, Silimfe regions in Latakia and line extending to Idlib.
5- What does Idlib mean for Syria?
Idlib, addressed as the “deadlock” of the civil war that has been ongoing for more than seven years, has importance in various aspects as a result of its location.
The M5 highway, which goes through the city, connects Turkey, Syria and Jordan. As for the Syria perspective, Idlib is like a door that opens to Mediterranean whilst neighboring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo. Given that it is right next to Latakia, where Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base is located and which is regarded as the “fortress” of Assad regime, contributes to Idlib’s strategic value.
Roughly 1,500 trucks carrying humanitarian aid per month crosses Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing in Idlib, making the city a key factor for war-weary civilians desperate for help. Besides, some 4,500 commercial trucks pass by the border crossing.
6- Why is Idlib important for Turkey’s border security?
Idlib shares a borderline of some 130 kilometers with Turkey. Turkey is most worried that a conflict leads to a new wave of migration. Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians and works for a cease-fire maintenance in Idlib.
On the other hand, the Turkish Armed Forces have established 12 observation points within Idlib’s de-escalation zones boundary, adding to the cities’ significance. The fact that there are various armed groups in Idlib and they might try to infiltrate into Turkey in case of an operation should be kept in mind.
7- What does Turkey do in Idlib?
Following a consensus reached within the frame of the Astana Agreement, Turkey, in October 2017, entered Idlib to establish the cease-fire observation points within the boundary of the de-escalation zone areas.
As part of the deal, Turkish troops have presence only in the observation points of Idlib.
8- What is the Turkish impact on the solution?
As the civil war has been continuing for more than seven years, Turkey has been one of the most important peace actors. Sharing more than 900 kilometers of borders, Turkish influence on the region increases. Turkey still defends that the issue should be tackled through negotiation, as it said the same before the public demands were repressed violently by the Assad regime.
It has been stated that a solution excluding Turkey, which protects the life and property safety of the civilians and support the legitimate opposition both on field and diplomacy, will lead to a regional disaster.
With its stance on the solution, Turkey plays an effective role in eradicating the terror groups in Syria and represents the democratic and safety rights of the millions of Syrians, who are anticipated to continue living in Syria.
Turkey supports that the opposition and regime find a common political point.
9- Which groups are dominant in Idlib?
Idlib is currently divided between the opposition and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an armed anti-regime group. In May, 14 opposition groups fighting against the Assad regime united under the banner of “National Liberation Front”. Faylaq al-Sham, Nasr Army, Free Idlib Army, 1st Beach Division, 2nd Beach Division, 1st Firqah, Distinguished Army, Shuda al-Islam Dareyya, Al-Hurriyah Brigade, 23rd Firqah, Syrian Liberation Front, Jaish al-Ahrar and Shukuru Sham have formed the largest military establishment against the regime, containing more than 70 thousand fighters.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is the other dominant force in Idlib.
After the Nusra Front, which was on the UN terrorism list, dissolved in early 2017, some 25,000 fighters formed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Despite that many of its components left the group, it still controls Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing.
A couple of other Nusra Front members formed another group called Hurra Seddin. According to Russians, terror groups are dominant in the region, however, the field reports tell the opposite.
Idlib is of huge importance as it is the only city under opposition control in Syria. As for the strategic window, it neighbors Turkey in northwest and is next to Aleppo in south, Aleppo’s Afrin district in northeast, Hama in south and Latakia in northwest.
For the Syrian opposition, it is like a “last castle”. Also, the biggest armed groups fighting against the Assad regime are located in Idlib.
10- What is the international actors’ position on Idlib?
These three countries, in a joint statement on Aug. 21, said that they were “gravely concerned over reports of a military offensive by the Syrian regime against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Idlib.” All of them reiterated condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
John Bolton, Assistant to U.S. President Donald Trump for National Security Affairs, also warned that they would “strongly” respond if the regime used chemical or biological weapons in Idlib.
On top of that, Russian media claimed the military opposition and White Helmet (Civil Defense) would collaborate with Western countries to perform a chemical attack.
The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. planned for a provocation in Idlib to “protect the Nusra Front and assure the permanency of the turbulent situation in the region.”
The Russian administration, making consecutive statements regarding Idlib, increased its military presence in the Mediterranean. Having sent warships to Latakia and Tartus, Russia will launch a drill in the Mediterranean expected to be the biggest of the modern history, which is viewed as an intimidation to the U.S. block.
As the crisis escalates, concerns rise on the safety of the civilians in the region.
The Syrian regime has recently announced plans to launch a major military offensive to the area, which is controlled by various armed opposition groups.
On Tuesday, the UN’s humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned such an offensive would lead to the “worst humanitarian catastrophe in the 21st century”.