East Aleppo residents aboard buses Idlib in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Media Center.
Scattered across the strategically crucial northwestern province of Idlib, around 1.4 million displaced civilians are currently hunkered down in anticipation of a massive pro-government assault that is widely expected to begin in the coming weeks.
Since mid-2016, when the besieged southern Damascus suburb of Daraya fell to pro-government forces, and almost all of its population of 10,000 were bused northwards to Idlib, the Syrian government has utilized a strategy of besieging and bombarding rebel-held communities, culminating in a series of surrender agreements. It is a pattern that has been repeated many times over—in Aleppo, East Ghouta, South Damascus, northern Homs, Daraa and beyond.
Now Idlib appears to be next.
Recent reports of major deployments by the Syrian army and pro-government factions, as well as Russian war ships off Syria’s Mediterranean coastline, suggest that a government-led offensive is increasingly imminent.
According to Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, the mass movement of civilian populations into Idlib represents the culmination of a years-long military strategy by the Syrian government to hem in Syrians deemed to be pro-opposition, while pressuring Turkey on its borders.
“This was seen as a way to get rid of all these people,” Landis tells Syria Direct. “In their heart of hearts, the [Syrian government] would like to drive up through Idlib and chase out hundreds of thousands.”
With nowhere left to be displaced to in Syria, and Turkey sending mixed signals about its willingness to absorb more refugees, this enormous population now stands in the crossfire of what could be the last great battle of the Syrian conflict.
“People are stuck in the middle of these two big elephants” says Landis.
As a result of this military strategy, Idlib has been transformed into one of the world’s densest enclaves of internally displaced people.
To visualize the scale of this crisis, and to illustrate how Syria’s northwest has been transformed, Syria Direct has prepared an infographic illustrating the flows of people northward since 2016—with a breakdown of the origins of many of the province’s 1.4 million displaced.
*Numbers are from May 2018, when regional breakdowns of displaced populations were last available. Numbers provided by REACH Initiative.
This report is part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.