While COVID-19 dominates news coverage around the world, Syria faces the worst humanitarian crisis in the nine years that the country has been enveloped in a civil war.
The Syrian civil war has its roots in the Arab Spring of 2011, in which the government began to violently suppress the dissent of citizens protesting for a democratic government. This created rebel factions that sought to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, also giving rise to safe harbors for terrorist groups. Approximately 500,000 people have died or are presumed dead because of the war, in addition to millions who are displaced or forced to flee the country entirely.
Today, Idlib province is the last opposition stronghold left in Syria, and the Assad regime, backed by Russia from the air and pro-Iranian forces from the ground, has recently begun to close in on the province. Idlib is near the border with Turkey, a country that has taken in around four million Syrian refugees and refuses to accept any more, trapping civilians in the province. Around half of the Idlib’s population are people who have been previously displaced due to conflicts in other cities, many of them multiple times. Furthermore, Turkey backs the Syrian opposition groups, placing civilians squarely in the middle of the firefight.
An immediate crisis was avoided when Turkey and Russia reached a tentative ceasefire agreement. It went into effect on Mar. 6 and has held so far, although many worry about the strength of the agreement; it is not the first of its kind, nor would it be the first deal to be broken. The arrangement involves territorial gains for Assad, including the creation of a security corridor on both sides of the M4, a key roadway that connects Syria’s east and west, expanding the area that Assad can effectively control. Over the weekend, Turkey and Russia completed their first joint patrol of the highway. Although further escalation has been seemingly stymied, any long-term solutions still remain unclear.
The violence in Idlib has displaced nearly a million people, the majority of which are women and children. People living in the province struggle from day to day. Indiscriminate bombing has destroyed hospitals and forced multiple families to crowd together in buildings, with many living out on the streets. The winter season has compounded refugee’s problems. In an interview with Aljazeera, Yosra Harsony, a refugee in Idlib, explained that she and her family came to Idlib “because of heavy bombardment. We escaped death. We have searched everywhere for shelter but the only available space was in the cemetery.” Omar Al-Hiraki, a surgeon, told Vox that he saw two children die as a result of the extreme cold; “The loser from this war is civilians,” he remarked.
(Sources: Vox, NYT, BBC, CNN, Washington Post, Aljazeera, ABC News)