Bombings in Syria's Idlib drive more than 30,000 from their homes
More than 30,000 people have fled intense bombardment in Idlib over the past week, the United Nations said on Monday, as it warned a major offensive could create the “worst humanitarian catastrophe” of this century.
The last rebel holdout in Syria was hit by dozens of Russian and Syrian air strikes over the weekend, after talks between international powers to avert an anticipated government offensive failed.
At least nine civilians were killed in the bombings, which targeted medical facilities, local monitors said.
In the week since Russia resumed air strikes in the province, 30,542 people have been forced to flee their homes, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Around half of that number have moved to camps.
The worsening situation in northern Syria prompted a stark warning on Monday from the UN’s new humanitarian chief.
"There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don't turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century," said Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs.
The Syrian government has promised to recapture the entirety of Idlib, two-thirds of which is controlled by the former Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al Sham. Turkey also has a significant military presence in the area and backs a number of rebel groups on the ground.
The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey failed to reach an agreement at last-ditch talks in Tehran on Friday, raising fears that an attack and a wave of displacement may be on the cards. Syrian and Russian forces have surrounded the province over the last few weeks, leaving civilians with nowhere to run.
The UN has estimated that about 800,000 people could be displaced in the early stages of a government offensive to recapture Idlib.
Most would flee further north to areas closer to the Turkish border, but aid groups are already struggling to provide for up to three million civilians who live in the province — half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
Humanitarian groups have warned that such a large displacement of people could overwhelm aid groups, which are already struggling to meet current needs in the province.
"We very actively preparing for the possibility that civilians move in huge numbers in multiple directions. We are extremely alarmed at the situation, because of the number of people and the vulnerability of the people," Mr Lowcock said.
Providing enough food for fleeing civilians has become a major concern. Food prices are reportedly rising fast and there is a lack of water storage facilities.
The World Food Programme said it had been stocking up on supplies and was ready to provide food for 850,000 people in the event of large-scale displacement.
But local NGOs have expressed concern that the UN preparations have not gone far enough. Dr Zaher Sahloul, president of MedGlobal, an organisation that sends medical missions into Syria, said local aid groups working in Idlib are worried that they may fall short.
“I met with 15 Syrian NGOs working in Idlib, they told me that UN co-ordination is not up to par compared to previous displacements from Aleppo, Ghouta, Homs and Deraa,” Dr Sahloul told The National.
“They have not allocated enough funding for the expected number of displaced people. All of these people will come to very small area, which is not equipped to absorb them. There will be bottlenecks, there will be tension. People are demoralised,” he warned.
Abdulrazaq Awad, who works for a relief organisation in Idlib, said his team had an emergency plan in place to cater for displaced people moving north, but it was dependent on outside support.
“There are lots of parts to this plan, like shelters, camps, nutritional help. Implementation of this plan of course depends on support from international organisations, without it the result will be catastrophic,” he said.
Large-scale displacement in Idlib could have diplomatic implications, as well as humanitarian. Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu raised the prospect that another migration crisis could spill beyond his country’s borders if an attack took place.
"We care about humanity and we won't give up. We will not be responsible for a migration wave in case of possible attacks [on Idlib]," he said on Sunday.
Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and is concerned about the impact of more arriving.
The Turkish-Syrian border is currently closed, but it is unclear whether it will remain so if hostilities start.