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Idlib: Unending Struggles Amidst Unbroken Silence

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

On the 5th of October, a powerful explosion targeted a gathering of people just minutes after the graduation ceremony of military officers at the Military Academy in Homs. The incident coincided with the presence of drones in the area. The wounded were swiftly transported to various hospitals, including the military hospital in Homs, Basal Hospital, Nahda Hospital, and Al-Ahli Hospital, where some of the wounded succumbed to their injuries.


Although no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the Assad regime accused "armed terrorist organizations backed by known international entities" of orchestrating the attack through explosive-laden drones. The regime emphatically stated their determination to respond forcefully and decisively to these terrorist organizations. The attack resulted in the death of 62 graduates, with approximately 150 others sustaining injuries, some of which are severe.


In response to the attack, the Assad regime's forces began shelling areas controlled by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and allied factions in the neighboring province of Idlib and the western countryside of Aleppo. In a rare move since the onset of the conflict in 2011, the Assad regime declared an official period of mourning and ordered flags to be flown at half-mast for three days, expressing sorrow for the victims. The Ministry of Religious Endowments urged all mosques across the country to hold absentia prayers.


Despite many activists dismissing the regime's account and suspecting that the attack was orchestrated by the regime itself as a pretext for brutally targeting civilians in Idlib, the regime began its shelling of Idlib from the very first day of the incident. The Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) reported that on the 4th of October, regime forces, along with Russia, scaled their aerial and rocket attacks in Northwest Syria - using internationally banned incendiary and cluster weapons.


The third day of the escalation, according to the White Helmets, was the bloodiest with 15 civilians killed and approximately 80 others wounded, among whom 3 children were dead and 24 more injured. 50 cities, towns, and villages in the countryside of Idlib and Aleppo were bombed. Residential neighborhoods, markets, the makeshift shelters of displaced people.


According to the same sources, these attacks hit 10 educational facilities, including 9 schools and a building housing the Education Directorate. Five medical facilities were directly targeted, resulting in significant damage. The shelling also affected 5 mosques, 3 camps, 4 popular markets, and 4 Syrian Civil Defense centers, including a women and family health center, an electricity station, and three poultry farms.


As a result of the shelling, several cities and towns witnessed an influx of displaced residents, including Idlib, Ariha, Jisr al-Shughur, Sarmin, and Dara Azza, as well as towns in Jabal al-Zawiya and western Idlib.


On Monday, October 9th, regime forces also targeted the eastern outskirts of the city of Atarib and the Atarib-Suhara road in western Aleppo. Additionally, artillery shelling targeted the town of Binnin and the outskirts of the Rweihah town in the southern countryside of Idlib, coinciding with Russian reconnaissance aircraft flying over the area of the "fourth de-escalation zone" (Idlib and its surroundings).


Russian warplanes carried out multiple airstrikes using high-explosive (vacuum) missiles, targeting the hills of Kabana in the northeastern countryside of Latakia. Simultaneously, factions from the "Al-Fatah Al-Mubeen" targeted military bases of the "25th Special Tasks Division" in the city of Maarat al-Numan in the southern countryside of Idlib, although there is no available information regarding the extent of losses resulting from this targeting.


In recent days, "Al-Fatah Al-Mubeen targeted dozens of strategically important military sites of Syrian regime forces, Russian troops, and Iranian-backed militias. These strikes hit various locations, including the hometown of Assad in Al-Qardaha, the Officers' Club in the Al-Furqan district of Aleppo, a Russian operations room in the eastern countryside of Maarat al-Numan, and the Jorin camp in the northwestern countryside of Hama. As a consequence, casualties, including field officers, were reported. Following this escalation, the regime requested a ceasefire. Meanwhile, the civilian population remains on high alert, fearing the possibility of renewed clashes and intense shelling.


Simultaneously, Turkey continues to target military centers of Kurdish forces in northern Syria. This action follows an explosion at the beginning of October, resulting from an attack by armed individuals using explosives on a gate of the Turkish Ministry of Interior's security directorate in the Qazlay district, located in the heart of the capital, Ankara. This attack was later claimed by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).


A Turkish Ministry of Defense official stated that launching a ground operation in Syria is among the options under consideration by Turkey, given the assessment that the two attackers who detonated a bomb near a government building earlier in the week had come from Syria.


The official further explained that their objective is to eliminate "terrorist organizations" posing a threat to Turkey, emphasizing that a ground operation is simply one of the options to address this threat and ensure border security.


Turkey initiated "drone warfare" targeting positions held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), primarily made up of Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), in response to an attack on Ankara. Additionally, Turkish drones executed 17 attacks in a single day on SDF positions, resulting in at least 10 casualties and significant damage to water and electricity facilities and other infrastructure. Meanwhile, forces of the U.S.-led international coalition downed one of the drones. Humanitarian organizations operating in Al-Hasakah suspended their activities due to the Turkish escalation.

However, this story goes beyond just the bombing of civilians. The intense regime and Russian bombardment in Idlib and western Aleppo could serve as a prelude to renewed conflicts in the region, putting millions of people at a new risk and facing fresh humanitarian disasters. Conversely, Turkish airstrikes in Al-Hasakah and Al-Qamishli aim to stifle life in the region by targeting power stations, water facilities, oil infrastructure, and hospitals. This allows them to achieve military objectives without the possibility of a ground intervention, as the U.S. has shown reluctance in this regard.


Both operations foreshadow unprecedented humanitarian catastrophes, especially considering that there is no safe haven for Syrians to flee to in these areas. There are an estimated 2.9 million internally displaced persons and 2 million living in camps. The humanitarian situation in northwestern Syria is dire.


Throughout the years of the previous war in Syria, Idlib Province in the northwest of the country has become the last refuge for Syrians who have nowhere else to go. The province is subject to Turkish-Russian agreements, with Iran also involved to some extent within the "Astana" understandings. Despite the escalating bombardment by the regime, there has been no comment from the countries sponsoring the ceasefire agreements, leaving innocent civilians to their fate.


Mass displacement has been recorded from all targeted areas, making it the largest of its kind in the region for several years. The initial count of internally displaced people by field teams has now exceeded 78,709 from various areas. Some families have sought refuge in camps and shelter centers, intending to return home once the situation calms down. Others have permanently relocated to camps in border areas.


In addition to the physical threat to life that people in Northern Syria face, certain aspects of their livelihood have been gravely affected - namely healthcare, food, and education. According to United Nations figures, the population in northwestern Syria is approximately 4.5 million, with 4.1 million classified as in need. Over 400,000 students have been deprived of their access to education.


The healthcare system in northwestern Syria is fragile and overstretched due to the ongoing conflict. More than half of healthcare specialists and professionals have left the country, while healthcare needs have continued to rise over the years. As of 2023, approximately 3.8 million people, or 84% of the population in northwestern Syria, require medical assistance. This represents a significant increase of around 25% compared to the previous year when the number stood at 3.08 million people.


The "Idlib Health Directorate" stated in a press release that "our health facilities are operating at full capacity to respond to the victims of the bombardment. The directorate collaborates with partners to ensure that hospitals are supplied with the necessary medications and essential consumables to sustain their work in treating the injured."


Furthermore, the statement added, "Health facilities, especially those in the targeted areas, have been instructed to implement emergency plans, suspending non-urgent cases and concentrating efforts on providing emergency services."


According to the directorate, the "emergency plan" involves preparing the emergency departments, operating rooms, and intensive care units in hospitals and healthcare facilities to receive all cases resulting from the bombardment.


The earthquakes that struck in February already pushed the healthcare system to the brink of collapse. Nearly one-third of the healthcare facilities out of the 601 in northwestern Syria are inactive, with 67 of them damaged due to the earthquakes. Healthcare workers have been operating continuously with only brief respites due to the influx of patients, including those with injuries, while facing additional health challenges such as cholera and malnutrition.


Critical and complex medical referrals across the border were temporarily disrupted via the Bab al-Hawa crossing due to the disaster, but they were resumed on June 5th for both existing and new patients. However, the number of new cancer patients – those who had not received treatment in Turkey before the earthquakes – increased to 600 by July 17th. Eventually, the referral system for new cancer patients was expanded on July 26th following additional efforts from the health sector and extensive advocacy campaigns led by Syrian communities.


Food insecurity is on the rise in northwestern Syria. The Food Security and Livelihoods (FSL) cluster reports that the number of individuals experiencing severe food shortages increased from 3.3 million to 3.7 million people, or 82% of the population, in the aftermath of the earthquakes. With growing needs, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it had to scale back its operations in Syria in July due to an "unprecedented funding crisis." This could impact up to 2.5 million people across the country. Last year, the organization had to reduce food rations in northwestern Syria by 13% for the same reason. Other factors that contribute to food insecurity in those regions include inflation, limited food supplies, and military attacks.


The international community remains silent, and we have not seen any condemnation, while the Assad regime takes advantage of the world's attention focused on the events between Gaza and Israel to exact revenge on civilians. This silence only emboldens Assad to commit more massacres against the Syrian people. These crimes and violations in northwest Syria would not have occurred if the Assad regime were held accountable for its actions.


The Syrian regime is politically and economically isolated, which is why it often sees a military solution as its way out. Through this approach, it aims to regain a prominent role on the ground, especially since it has receded following recent popular movements, such as those in Sweida. This is in continuation of the Syrian people's revolution for justice and freedom.


The ongoing killing of Syrians is its way out, and there should be action from the UN Security Council and the United Nations, as the atrocities taking place constitute clear cases of genocide and crimes against humanity. The regime's objective is to kill as many people as possible, through the destruction of infrastructure, hospitals, and civil defense teams. This is a systematic war, and the regime knows exactly what it is doing.

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