The northern Syria governate of Idlib exists on many peripheries. It – along with parts of Aleppo and Hama – is dominated by rebel and Islamist groups. It borders territory held by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad but does not fall under the government’s sway.
At midnight on August 1, a new ceasefire was declared in Idlib. Pro-Assad media called it a conditional arrangement. It cannot be expected to hold long and does not resolve the situation of opposition-held territory in northern Syria.
Internationally, Idlib presents a Syrian border to Turkey. It is a springboard for Turkish involvement in opposition-held Syria and a destination for Syrian refugees, formerly resident in Turkey, who have been ‘returned’ to their homeland by Turkish decision.
More significantly, Idlib occupies a periphery between conflict and ceasefire, a condition that allows for intense fighting and mounting casualties, but for most of the last year, its would-be invaders have deferred conclusive battles.
Although recent weeks have seen direct fighting between groups allied with the government and others opposing it, more often the violence has come from the air. Aerial bombardments have accounted for hundreds of casualties in opposition-held territory.
Befitting an unconventional war, civilians have faced the most violence. Civilians have been purposefully targeted by regime and Russian aircraft. Notably, civilian targets in districts such as Ma’arrat al-Numan, including the oppositionist town of Kafr Nabel, have been bombed consistently.
Ryan O’Farrell, an independent analyst, said: ‘As ground operations in northern Hama slowed in July, the regime and [its] Russian allies significantly escalated air strikes and artillery barrages on population centres in rebel-held Idlib province’.
The toll of the bombings has been intense. Regime and Russian pilots are accused of deliberately attacking residential and commercial areas to increase the destruction of their aerial campaign.
Hospitals and other medical facilities in Idlib have been repeatedly bombed. When new clinics open, they are attacked, even when they are constructed underground.
‘Thousands of strikes have killed more than 800 civilians, purposefully targeted more than 20 hospitals and displaced more than half a million civilians, many of whom have been displaced before’, O’Farrell said.
The population of Idlib rose substantially in the course of Syria’s war.
In part, this was due to internal displacement caused by the war’s shifting front lines. Others went north in the hope of leaving Syria, something Turkey restricted by closing its border with Idlib. Others were deported from rebel-held areas where fighters had signed surrender deals with the regime after they fell.
These deals included the deportation of fighters and civilians, including their families, in green buses that became emblematic of the Syrian civil war’s latter stages.
All this has swollen the population, civilian and armed to an estimated three million civilians in Idlib and the Aleppo and Hama countryside.
Idlib’s fighting population has also increased substantially. Though rebel and jihadist groups have spent some of their strength jockeying for control of the territory they inhabit, there are thousands of fighters present whose numbers alone make the conquest of Idlib by the regime a remote prospect.
This explains the resorting, by the regime and Russia, to aerial warfare and the targeting of civilian areas.
‘As has long been standard operating procedure for the regime, mass bombardments of civilian areas and the targeting of critical civilian infrastructure have preceded, accompanied and replaced ground operations, with the clear intention to destroy the civilian support base that Syria’s rebels live among and rely upon to continue their fight’, O’Farrell said.
Late last year and sporadically since, ceasefires have been agreed between the regime, Russia and Idlib’s defenders. These cessations do not hold long and have only marked brief interludes between new outbreaks of fighting.
Amid the violence and sporadic ceasefires that have marked Idlib’s situation for much of the year, its fate has appeared on the margin of global interest. Brief flares of interest in the situation have arisen the West where regime and Russian bombing is reported but rarely analysed.
Opposition media recently released footage of a 5-year-old girl, Riham, rescuing her infant sister, Tuqa, after an attack on their home in Ariha. Riham reached for and held her sister, preventing her from falling amid the rubble, as their father looked on. Riham later died of her injuries. Her death and heroism were noted by some across the world.
Idlib remains in peripheral states. It is on the border of regime-controlled Syria, on the edge of global attention and on the periphery of conventional conflict, but the violence facing its inhabitants is real and inescapable, entirely central to their lives.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.