International crisis looms as 700,000 flee Syria’s Idlib

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MARAAT AL-NUMAN/BEIRUT-Reuters

An assault on rebel-held northwest Syria by government forces has pushed some 700,000 people to flee toward the Turkish border and raised the specter of an international crisis, U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey said on Jan. 29.   

Backed by Russian airpower, government forces have advanced on Idlib at a rapid clip since last week, taking back dozens of towns and upending a region where millions have taken refuge since the start of Syria’s nearly nine-year war.     

The campaign has ratcheted up tensions between Moscow and Ankara.

Turkey fears a fresh wave of migrants piling across its border and has a dozen observation posts in Idlib, part of a de-escalation agreement it says Russia is now violating.       

Speaking at an online news briefing, Jeffrey said that in the last three days Syrian government and Russian warplanes had hit Idlib with 200 airstrikes “mainly against civilians.”

There are “massive movements of troops pushing back hundreds of square kilometers and setting – I think now – 700,000 people who have already internally displaced on the move once again towards the Turkish border, which will then create an international crisis,” said Jeffrey. 

Turkey already hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees.   

Moscow and Damascus say they are fighting jihadist militants who have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo in northern Syria, but rights groups and rescue workers say airstrikes have demolished hospitals, schools and hit other civilian areas.       

Towns emptied

In a significant milestone for Bashar al-Assad‘s stated drive to reclaim all of Syria, government forces on Jan. 28 took Idlib’s second-biggest city, Maarat al-Numan, an urban center that straddles the M5 international highway linking the capital Damascus to Aleppo and considered vital for trade.   

Regime forces enter key rebel-held town south of Idlib

A Syrian army general speaking on a media tour of Maarat al-Numan on Jan. 29 said the latest military campaign was focused on securing all of the M5 highway.

Smoke still billowed from some buildings in the city on Jan. 30 while the demolished exteriors of others tumbled onto streets emptied entirely of civilians.   

Syria’s war-torn economy has plunged deeper into crisis in recent months, with a rapidly weakening currency driving up inflation and aggravating hardship for Syrians struggling to afford basic goods.   

“What they’re doing is using Idlib as a sort of distraction that allows time to keep their loyalist constituencies on a war footing,” said

Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.    

“This is a regime that is unable to demonstrate effective control and revive economic activity, revive markets, and hold up the lira,” said Sayigh.   

A U.N. report on Jan. 29 described increasingly bleak conditions for Syrians in urgent need of shelter and food while fleeing bombardment.   

“Whole towns have emptied as an increasing number of civilians flee northward to areas deemed safer, but which at the same time are rapidly shrinking, as territorial advances against opposition forces continue,” said David Swanson, the U.N. regional spokesperson for the Syria crisis in Amman.   

“This latest wave of displacement underscores the fact that this war, now almost nine years old, is far from over,” said Swanson. 

Hurriyet Daily News

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