As world attention falters on the Syria crisis, and a climate of peace talks bizarrely instead leads to an escalation of the government’s military offensives, there is a small pocket of civilians, some rebel fighters and some jihadists that is fast becoming the beleaguered country’s latest version of hell.
Idlib in the country’s northwest is currently the focus of a new and sustained offensive by the Syrian regime. It has long been the region to which civilians and fighters are evacuated from rebel-friendly areas after lengthy and brutal regime sieges.
The thousands who fled bombardment in eastern Aleppo mostly ended up there. The United Nations thinks half of the two million people in Idlib are internally displaced, and therefore crammed into its overstretched camps. Some other aid agencies put the total figure of people there at three million. Between the savage winter desert weather and Russian-backed bombardment, things are about to get worse.
The regime seems keen to retake those areas that are strategically important to it, and also to forge a more direct route north toward Aleppo. The offensive is causing tens of thousands of civilians to be pushed north, according to UN officials, up toward a tightly policed border with Turkey – effectively trapping increasingly more civilians in an increasingly deadly and small space.
They must have hoped their torture and bombardment would have ended when they got to Idlib, but they have instead seen the attacks continue.
The key complication for the West – whose policy is already neutered after six years of hapless half-interventions in the war – is that al Qaeda and remnants of ISIS also haunt Idlib.
Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, now rebranded as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has a strong presence there, among other jihadists, as well as moderates. US airstrikes have gone for al Qaeda targets there. Western officials are worried about the concentration of extremists in this one pocket who have thus far escaped the deadly scrutiny of the campaign against ISIS.
The landscape of Idlib is flat and often inhospitable. There are millions sheltering there, with perhaps as many as a hundred thousand looking for new homes in the crammed camps if the regime keeps up its assault.
Turkey, where once they might have fled, has closed its border and is publicly closer to the Russian-backed Syrian regime than ever before.
This is the final holdout, perhaps, of Syria’s Sunni rebellion, and it is facing a ghastly yet hideously unnoticed onslaught.