About 2.2 million Syrians, the vast majority of them civilians, have been forcibly moved to Idlib province during the course of the war in Syria, according to the 10th and final quarterly Siege Watch report, published today. That includes more than 110,000 people expelled after the forced surrender agreements of northern Homs countryside and various suburbs around Damascus, including Eastern Ghoutha, this past spring. For the second time in just a few months, these civilians are facing devastation.
The threat of a military assault on the Syrian province of Idlib looms large, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in the Russian resort town of Sochi to discuss the situation in Idlib. These talks may be one last chance to prevent Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from implementing the last phase of the campaign to cleanse Syria of anyone opposing the government. While earlier phases have been horrific, they typically ended with a surrender deal and hundreds of thousands of people, fighters and civilians, forcibly displaced to Idlib. This time, there is no more place left to go.
“We still hope that a diplomatic agreement can avert a military assault on Idlib,” says PAX’s Marjolein Wijninckx. “It’s hard to imagine such an assault on 3 million people -- it may be the worst devastation of the war. People forcibly displaced from formerly besieged areas are yet again under threat in Idlib, while they haven’t had a chance yet to recover from the carnage they survived..”
The new Siege Watch Quarterly report describes the last stage of the “surrender or die” strategy of the Assad regime with Russian and Iranian support. Through scorched earth campaigns or the threat thereof, this strategy forced besieged communities into surrender. The latest report details how after the scorched earth campaign on Eastern Ghouta, the last government-besieged areas in the Southern Damascus Suburbs and northern Homs surrendered. After the last besieged Shi’a villages of Foua and Kefraya were depopulated, the era of sieges has ended.
This latest report reveals that Russia has taken complete ownership of the final stages of the “surrender or die” strategy, cutting other pro-government forces out of the process, and committing Russian forces to maintaining security in post-surrender communities for at least six months.
People who stayed in communities that have surrendered still suffer. The end of the sieges brings in a new phase in the Syrian government’s punishment of the civilians who rose up against it. It is imperative that the international community recognizes this reality and adjusts all interventions, but especially those involving coordination with the Syrian government in post-surrender enclaves, to avoid becoming a tacit partner in this ongoing persecution.
More urgently, the international community must do all it can to avoid the approaching catastrophe in Idlib province. “People are disillusioned, they have no more trust in the international community,” says Wijninckx. “This is the last chance the international community has to avert an extermination campaign in Idlib and to show the millions of people trapped in Idlib that they support their call for dignity.”