As the Syrian government prepares to launch an offensive on Idlib province, humanitarians are on edge. Estimating the area may hold as many as three million people, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said he is “deeply concerned about the growing risks of a humanitarian catastrophe”, calling on Russia, Iran, and Turkey to seek a last-minute deal to avoid violence, while UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is offering to personally escort civilians out of the warzone.
With the border with Turkey sealed, hundreds of thousands of civilian may have nowhere to run if the tanks come rolling in. “The only thing people are talking about now is the coming battle,” said Rajaai Bourhan, a former business student who now ekes out a living as a freelance journalist in northwestern Syria. Speaking to IRIN from Idlib last week, he described a city hostage to circumstances outside its control.
For years, Sunni rebel groups have controlled Idlib. The surrounding area is mostly under al-Assad’s control. As one of few remaining opposition sanctuaries and an entry point for cross-border aid, Idlib has seen its population swell with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Syrians like Bourhan.
Two thirds of the estimated 3 million population of Idlib are said to be in need of some sort of humanitarian assistance, and “these people are extremely vulnerable”, said Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body.
Pawel Krzysiek, head of communications for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria, said that fighting in Idlib “will put thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, on the move.”
Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees, according to UNHCR statistics, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under pressure from the Turkish public and the EU to secure his borders.