Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a regular blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. Resettled in the United States in 2012, Mr. al-Muqdad became a US citizen in Spring 2018. CMS features this series in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.
“There is no safe place,” says Maha, age 40, from Aleppo, Syria. She adds, “I am not a fighter or a terrorist, but I have been on the run from one home to another since 2012. I need a safe haven for myself and my children. But where is safe? Turkey has closed its doors, and the world has turned its back on us.” Maha was forced to flee Aleppo after heavy bombardment in 2016 and is now running from Idlib, which Syrian forces (with Russian assistance) have pummeled intermittently since April 2019. Nearly 1,100 civilian deaths in and near the Idlib demilitarized zone were reported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights between April 29 and August 29, 2019, with another 40,000 persons displaced per month. A truce took effect in August, but shelling and ground battles have continued, killing an estimated 300 civilians in the interim.
The forces of the Syrian regime, with Russian support, have taken control of about forty villages and farms in the eastern and southern countryside of Idlib. This situation has led to further disaster as residents continue to flee, heading for the northern border with Turkey or any other possible escape.
Residents are fleeing by the thousands from the southern countryside town of Ma’arat al-Numan as regime forces advance. “It is an indescribable feeling,” says Abu Ahmed, father of ten children. “I did not expect that one day I would leave my home.” As his eyes well up with tears, he adds, “It is like an earthquake has hit our village. I must secure my family.” But is there any safe place for men like Abu Ahmed and their families?
Hundreds of residents and displaced people organized a demonstration near the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey after a fierce escalation campaign to protest the silence of Turkish capital Ankara, which has control points inside Idlib. Some of the towns that are being bombed south of Idlib and northern Hama are located in de-escalation areas where Ankara has pledged to ensure peace. The violent Syrian-Russian campaign against these areas prompted Syrian activists to protest the silence of Ankara, which is considered the most prominent supporter of the opposition, and to question the role of the “Turkish guarantor.”
On December 21, the Aleppo Media Union launched a social media campaign to draw the world’s attention to Idlib, publishing photos and videos documenting the massacres committed by Russia against civilians in the Idlib countryside. Idlib remains the last area outside of the Assad regime’s control. One of the Union’s media campaign slogans reads: “Hello, planet Earth … we are the children of Idlib. Russia is killing us!” The United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also reported that in light of the intensification of airstrikes and shelling since December 16 in southern Idlib, tens of thousands of civilians had fled Marat al-Numan to northern Syria.
“It is difficult to overstate the urgency of this looming humanitarian disaster if nothing is done to protect these people who often have lost everything,” said a spokesperson for Refugees International. Idlib is the last resort for Syrians who have been forced to flee the war. The city’s population has doubled from 1.5 million to 3 million, with two-thirds of the population depending on humanitarian aid for survival. Tens of thousands live in camps and depend on assistance from international humanitarian organizations.
On Wednesday, the UN officially condemned the escalation of hostilities in Idlib. However, on Friday, the UN Security Council dismissed two draft resolutions related to the transportation of humanitarian aid to Syria. The first – drafted by Germany, Belgium, and Kuwait, and vetoed by Russia, with support from China – called for passing aid through two border points in Turkey and one in Iraq over 12 months. This was the fourteenth veto Russia used against a draft resolution on Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. The second resolution – drafted by Russia – would have passed aid through two border points in Turkey for six months. However, it did not receive sufficient support. Meanwhile, cross-border aid operations continue to take place through four border points in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, but authorization for this plan terminates on January 10.
While the United States has officially condemned the Syrian/Russian airstrikes against civilians, this has not translated into helping people living in Idlib. In addition, the UN reports that the regime has deliberately attacked medical facilities.
The humanitarian disaster in Idlib may prove to be the worst of the Syrian conflict. The fate of more than 3 million people in Idlib remains uncertain, as the Syrian Civil War continues into its ninth year. As 2020 dawns, the question for Syrians remains: is there any safe place left in the country?