Nearly 2 million Syrians could be forced into Turkey if the fierce battle between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the al-Assad regime, with its ally Russian forces, continues in north-western Syria.
UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, Panos Moumtzis, told Reuters in Geneva that the situation is getting worse.
“Our fear is that if this continues and if the numbers continue rising, and if the conflict intensifies, we could see hundreds of thousands, or even a million or two, heading towards the borders of Turkey,” he said.
The last attack on rebels by Russia-backed Syrian military forces in Idlib, which is home to more than three million people, resulted in the deaths of dozens and the displacement of thousands in the region, according to the latest data from the UN.
Moumtzis said the situation was worsening and that a deal made between Russia and Turkey to de-escalate the combat was, effectively, no longer in place.
In September 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed on a cease-fire treaty – called the ‘Astana Process’ – to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone in a bid to remove extremist fighters, such as HTS, and prohibit acts of aggression in the territory in an attempt to prevent attacks on Syrian government forces and infrastructure.
The bombardments, however, have hit the buffer zone agreed under the Russian-Turkish deal. As per the framework of the Astana Agreements, Turkey currently holds twelve cease-fire observatory points in Idlib’s de-escalation zone, while Russia has ten posts.
The treaty, which was in place until late April, was effectively shattered by the fighting. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched the assault arguing that Syrian rebels had breached the existing ceasefire. Since then, his government and his ally, Russia, have been bombing Idlib, most of which has been under control of the HTS since January 2019.
“We see an offensive that is really targeting – or with an impact on – hospitals and schools in civilian areas, in areas where there is population and urban areas – which really should not be happening according to international humanitarian law,” Moumtzis said.
Aid organizations have been advised to share their facilities with the fighting parties to avoid being hit. Many aid workers, however, do not trust such requests due to recurrent air strikes on hospitals, Moumtzis said.
“It’s a catastrophe, what has been happening… for the sake of humanity, there has to be an intervention. A few months ago, we asked to make sure that this nightmare scenario will not take place. Actually, it’s unfolding in front of our own eyes as we speak,” he stated.
The UN executive also touched on the unmet country pledges to the UN for humanitarian works within Syria, which remained at $500 million, while it should have been $3.3 billion for the year, leaving the aid effort surviving “hand-to-mouth”.
White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defense group, says some 300,000 people have been displaced near the Turkish border since the regime’ strikes began in Idlib in late April.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said on Friday that almost 950 people had been killed in the latest clashes in Idlib, Al Jazeera reported.
Already hosting some 4 million refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians, Turkey fears a further spill-over in the event of an all-out assault on Idlib, among other concerns.
Who backs who in the Syria war?
While Russia aims the al-Assad regime to gain full control over the region, Turkey has been backing a conglomeration of anti-Assad rebels, including the National Front for Liberation (NLF) and the National Army, throughout the eight-year Syrian war.
The HTS, a group that includes the former Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, has consistently refused to listen to Turkey. The group never removed their heavy weapons from the buffer zone, and even defeated Turkey-backed NLF in the region.
Last month, the HTS chief Abu Mohammed al-Jolani released a video message urging rival fighters allied to Turkey to take up arms against regime forces to ease the pressure on the jihadist bastion of Idlib, as the Damascus regime forces advanced in the region.
For the first time in years, Reuters reported, the rebels’ readiness to look beyond their differences that once led to deadly fighting, has united jihadists and mainstream rebels.