Idlib crisis festers as coronavirus threat looms

As Turkey and the international community struggle to deal with a fast-growing global pandemic, some 3 million displaced Syrians remain in dire need of aid along the Turkish border in Idlib province, with violence set to flare again amid fears that coronavirus will soon appear in Syria’s last rebel-held province. 

Aid group Syria Campaign warned on Thursday that it was just a matter of time before the coronavirus reached Idlib, which it said had only 60 available beds for up to 3 million people, following Syrian and Russian targeting of healthcare facilities. 

Since the Turkey-Russia ceasefire began in Idlib two weeks ago, reports of violations have emerged from both sides as Ankara has reinforced its positions. On Wednesday, a pro-Syrian government news outlet reported that Syrian army reinforcements were pouring in from neighbouring provinces as President Bashar Assad prepared to resume his offensive in Idlib. 

A Turkish security source acknowledged this week that the ceasefire was only meant to freeze the conflict and halt the ongoing humanitarian tragedy, while most observers agree that the deal failed to solve the core issue. To fulfil his main objective of reclaiming all of Syria and clearing the country of supposed enemies of the regime, Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, must take all of Idlib province. 

Yet what might happen to all those displaced Syrians squeezed into squalid camps between Assad’s forces and the Turkish border remains up in the air, particularly as Turkey and the European Union have made clear their unwillingness to take any more refugees.

“All the evidence of what the Assad regime has done over the last nine years points to a systematic attempt to ethnically, religiously, ideologically cleanse the country of anyone who opposes his rule,” Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, executive director of the Syria-focused aid group People Demand Change, told Ahval in a podcast. 

He said that the Syrian-Russian strategy for the past five years has been to take small chunks of territory, pause for negotiations or a temporary agreement, then re-group and resume their offensive, slowly changing the landscape in their favour. Today the only area left is filled to the brim with civilians, most of whom oppose Assad.  

“They would be happy to push all these people into Turkey, because Russia and the regime can’t afford the aid and services to keep these 3.5 million people alive,” said Ghosh-Siminoff, who was studying Arabic in Aleppo when the civil war began and has since been working to help civilians across northern Syria. 

Dozens of displaced Syrian families have begun settling in new homes in Idlib built by a Turkish charity. The vast majority are unable to return home because the assault by Russia and Assad has made most surrounding villages and towns uninhabitable, without electricity, healthcare or even navigable roads. 

Meanwhile, Turkey and much of the world have their hands full with coronavirus. Europe is struggling to fend off another refugee wave, while the United States is knee-deep in another presidential election. 

“We’ve had nine years of conflict that has seen Syria’s infrastructure damaged and destroyed to a degree that it makes every subsequent crisis that much harder to cope with,” said Ghosh-Siminoff, who expects the situation to remain unresolved for a year or more. “We’re looking at a prolonged crisis at the Turkish border.” 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke with the leaders of Germany, France and Great Britain about Idlib and the refugee crisis on Tuesday, but appeared to make little progress. The European side reportedly offered a billion euros to Turkey to address the refugee issue, in addition to the six billion it provided in the 2016 refugee deal, but Erdoğan refused. 

“The Europeans really are a bunch of hypocrites,” said Ghosh-Siminoff. “They’ve been paying Turkey to basically contain a refugee crisis they have done very little to help solve ... Europe is not upholding their own quote-unquote moral framework and values of international law and respect for democracy and human rights.”

He acknowledged that Turkey had also made some missteps in regards to Syria. 

“Turkey also has done demographic engineering in Syria by the way they’ve inserted themselves and displaced certain communities, such as in Afrin or Ras al Ayn,” said Ghosh-Siminoff.  “We can’t pretend these things didn’t happen; they did.” 

Yet Ankara also stopped the Assad government’s advance and bought the world some time to figure out a way to help Idlib’s displaced. Turkey has also been hosting some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, while Europe has accepted less than half that many. 

“They need to put aside their difference and think realistically how they’re going to have a united front in terms of dealing with the regime and more importantly dealing with Russia,” said Ghosh-Siminoff. 

Now comes another threat, COVID-19. If and when it reaches Idlib’s densely packed camps, it could spread like wildfire. “People are scared, but they have nowhere to escape to, Ibrahim al-Haj, a White Helmets volunteer, told Syria Campaign. “It’s very overcrowded everywhere and people can’t just stay home or inside their tent.”

Ghosh-Siminoff urged the international community to take three steps to improve the situation for displaced people in Idlib; establish a no-fly zone to halt Russian and Syrian air strikes on civilian targets and ensure the safety of civilians and aid workers; persuade the United Nations Security Council to re-open several of the Syria-Turkey border crossings to allow for quicker and more efficient aid delivery; and find ways to allow the displaced to generate income and create a local economy, reducing their reliance on aid. 

“To do that there needs to be space, and right now we’re looking at the complete Gaza-fication of Idlib and packing 3.5 million people into a very small area,” said Ghosh-Siminoff, pointing out that 90 percent of Syria’s displaced need daily aid to survive. 

“We need to really think hard about how we’re going to help these people survive and come up with a better sustainable model for aid for Idlib.”

Ghosh-Siminoff saw no easy solution ahead, and feared the conflict could take yet another dark turn. “Whenever I think Syria as a conflict can’t get any worse, it manages to get worse,” he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.