BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian military and its allies have begun a long, slow and violent campaign to recapture the last province in the country still under opposition control, where the government has gradually cornered rebels, extremists and civilians alike.
A victory in Idlib Province, in Syria’s northwest, would help the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his allies Russia and Iran consolidate what increasingly looks like an assured victory in an eight-year-old civil war. But it would almost certainly come at a high cost in life and property.
Last Wednesday, with airstrikes splitting open the Syrian countryside near their home, the Esmail family was selling everything they could not carry: their carpets, their washing machine, their refrigerator.
On Thursday, they packed up the rest. On Friday, they searched frantically for shelter outside the danger zone, knowing not where to flee, but only that they must.
“People don’t want to end up in the fields, like we saw on TV and social media,” said Alaaeddine Esmail, a former journalist from Idlib.
Over the course of the war, Idlib has become a repository for opposition fighters and supporters who were bused there after the government recaptured their areas and gave them a choice: surrender, or go to Idlib. The province’s population has more than doubled to about three million during the war.
A strained stability had held in the area since September under a cease-fire deal between Russia and Turkey, which borders Idlib to the north. But Russia has been growing impatient with Turkey’s inability to make good on the agreement, which called for it to root out Idlib’s extremist rebels and help reopen an important trading route that the Syrian government needs to rebuild its economy.
The Assad government wants to recapture the whole country, including northeastern Syria, an area that an American-backed coalition runs after recently driving out the Islamic State; the northern borderlands, which Turkey controls; and Idlib. But the presence of the Turks and the Americans in the north and the east has so far kept the Syrian government and its allies at bay.
Southern Idlib Province and parts of Hama Province, just to the south, have come under heavy attack in the past three weeks from Russian warplanes and pro-government forces. Syrian soldiers on the ground have also regained control of at least 12 villages clustered around Idlib’s southern corner, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group based in Britain.
In Idlib and Hama, pro-government bombing has destroyed or disabled at least 19 hospitals and medical centers in 20 days, leaving doctors operating in basements and patients unable to find treatment. The violence on both sides has killed about 223 civilians since April 20, the Observatory said. And at least 16 humanitarian groups have suspended operations in the area just when the need has grown especially acute.
The new offensive has forced more than 180,000 residents to flee, and thousands more to consider following them, not knowing when their villages’ turn might come.
Meanwhile, the rebels have launched attacks of their own. Rebel shelling of a government-held area in northwest Syria has killed at least 25 civilians, including 10 children, the Observatory said.
Once again, civilians have been caught in the grinder of a vast geopolitical competition.
“In the coming days, we’ll have a black hole controlled by terrorist groups, no international aid or humanitarian aid,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who defected and now lives in Washington. “Because nobody is willing to take care of three million civilians.”
Turkey is eager to keep Idlib stable in large part because it does not want hundreds of thousands more civilians fleeing across its border. It already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
But Turkey also needs to maintain good relations with Russia to maneuver in Syria’s north and northeast, especially around the town of Tel Rifaat, near Aleppo. Turkey is alarmed about the American-backed Syrian Kurdish militias that have amassed territory and weaponry just across the border from it in northern Syria. Those forces are linked to militant Kurdish separatists that Turkey has fought for decades.
“If the Turks want to do anything in northeast Syria at a later stage, they’ll need Russian good will,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East security analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s not just about Idlib, and that’s the difficult part.”
As Russia has repeatedly grumbled in recent months, Turkey has not succeeded in suppressing extremists in Idlib. The province is now largely under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group linked to Al Qaeda that overran other armed groups there over the winter.
As in the past, the mix of extremists and more moderate rebels has allowed the Syrian government and its allies to argue that they are combating terrorists who have attacked government areas. The government has long deemed all of its opponents terrorists.
Perhaps reflecting its weak hand, Turkey at first offered only a muted response to the recent violence.
On Wednesday, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, called for the attacks on the Idlib area to stop. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, described the strikes on schools and hospitals as “inexplicable” in a call last Monday with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Erdogan’s office said.
Mr. Hokayem said the Turkey-Russia cease-fire had benefited the Syrian government by taking the world’s focus off Idlib and eroding the rebels’ cohesion. Rather than unleashing an all-out onslaught, pro-government forces are likely to bore into Idlib and Hama bit by bit, Mr. Hokayem said.
In addition to helping Mr. al-Assad retake territory, Russia is interested in protecting its air base in the nearby coastal province of Latakia and in securing two highways in the area that would allow trade to flow through Syria all the way from Turkey to the Persian Gulf. That would offer the Syrian government much-needed income, said Mr. Barabandi, the former diplomat from Syria.
The fighting comes after Mr. Putin said this month that a full-scale assault was impractical for now. He also cited humanitarian concerns.
But the humanitarian situation in Idlib and Hama is deteriorating by the day.
Dr. Omar Ibrahim, an Egyptian volunteering in Syria with the Syrian American Medical Society, thought he was done operating in basements after leaving Aleppo, which was besieged in 2016, for Idlib. But now, with bombs knocking hospitals in Idlib and Hama out of service, Dr. Ibrahim is once again treating patients underground.
The hospital basement where he has been working for more than 10 days is the area’s only functional medical center, he said. Among the hospitals struck are some whose precise coordinates were provided to Syria’s government and the Russian military in the explicit hope of avoiding airstrikes. No hospitals are open in northern Hama now.
If he has to evacuate, he is not sure what he will do, Dr. Ibrahim said. Unless he could reach another functioning hospital in a rebel-held area, he said, his options are scant: become a refugee or return to Egypt, where he could be prosecuted for traveling to Syria to work with the rebels.
“The pressure on the medical sector is increasing every day,” he said. “I don’t know when we’ll be asked to evacuate if the situation gets worse. Everything is possible.”
Reached by phone this month, Muhanned Alshekh, a resident of the Idlib town of Kafranbel, said he had watched hundreds there drive away with no destination in mind but safety, wherever that might be. He was weighing moving his family toward the Turkish border, he said.
As he spoke, the call was repeatedly interrupted by the noise of aircraft overhead. It had become a familiar sound, he said — and that of his 1-year-old son, Fayez, crying out, “Baba! Baba!” whenever he heard a warplane’s scream.
“Apologies, I have to go,” Mr. Alshekh said. “The strikes are getting closer.”
News credit : Nytimes