A Syrian government offensive in northwestern Syria has already forced more than 200,000 civilians to flee in less than a month, with tens of thousands more at risk as fighting escalates. And with Afrin now under fire from the Turkish army and its allies, it could get much worse still.
Over the past month, Syrian government forces have been pushing into rebel-controlled Idlib Province, and Turkey is now in the early days of an attack on the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
Both areas, particularly Idlib, house large numbers of civilians who have already been internally displaced. While Afrin’s crisis is just beginning, some 210,000 people are on the run in Idlib Province. More than half are minors, and Save the Children describes this wave as one of the worst displacement crises of Syria’s nearly seven-year war.
“Many are sheltering in the open in freezing temperatures or in abandoned buildings,” the group said in statement. “With fighting closing in on all sides, many are trapped with nowhere left to flee.”
Turkey attacks Afrin
The Turkish attack began 20 January with more than 100 airstrikes against Kurdish targets in Afrin, a mountainous Kurdish enclave in the far northwestern corner of Syria, also known as Kurd Dagh. The following day, Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels crossed the Syrian-Turkish border.
Their opponents belong to a Kurdish militia known as the Popular Defence Forces (YPG). It is a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged war on the government in Ankara for decades over demands for Kurdish rights and self-rule, and faced a brutal crackdown in response.
Turkey is determined to break up the Kurdish hold on northern Syria, where the US Air Force has helped YPG fighters take territory from the so-called Islamic State (IS).
However, the Americans only work with the YPG and its allies in eastern Syria. In the western enclave of Afrin, YPG forces have been left to fend for themselves, battling Turkish- and American-allied rebels and seeking support from Russia, which has helped them manage relations with President Bashar al-Assad’s administration in nearby Aleppo.
The complicated situation has led to a strange mix of international reactions. Except for the Turkey-based Syrian exile opposition, most players with a stake in this war are critical of Ankara’s intervention.
The Syrian and Iranian governments have condemned the intervention as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty, and even governments critical of al-Assad have protested, with France calling for an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council.
Although Washington initially seemed unhappy with the idea of Turkish-Kurdish escalation, a spokesperson later avoided condemning the attacks once they were underway, instead calling on Turkey to “ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties”, while taking note of Ankara’s “legitimate security concerns.”
Russia, too, is taking a nuanced position. Since March 2017, a small Russian monitoring mission has been stationed in Afrin to prevent clashes and prevent a Turkish intervention. Moscow has moved its monitors out of Turkey’s way and then urged restraint, without demanding a Turkish retreat. YPG leaders are outraged, accusing Moscow of trading Afrin for Turkish concessions in Idlib and the Syrian peace talks. Some suspect that Russia is hoping to use the Turks in order to force the Kurds to accept a return of al-Assad’s government to Afrin.
Turkey seems well aware that it isn’t making any friends by attacking the group chiefly responsible for quashing IS.
In an unusual display of public relations savvy, Ankara has named its campaign Operation Olive Branch and Turkish officials are claiming to be targeting both YPG/PKK and IS.
In reality, there are no IS forces anywhere to be found in the area, but saying so certainly makes for better headlines – and YPG commanders are now doing the same thing, accusing Turkey-backed rebels of belonging to IS.
The ultimate goal of the Afrin operation is murky. It’s clear that Turkey has long wanted the PKK’s allies out of Afrin – but why now, and what exactly is the plan?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his troops will “take control” of Afrin, seemingly referring to the city and the entire enclave around it. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has indicated a more modest goal of establishing a 30-kilometre cordon along Afrin’s northwestern border, while helping Syrian rebels retake Tel Rifaat and other Arab towns on the eastern side of the Afrin enclave. Kurdish forces seized these areas in a Russian-backed campaign spring 2016.
Some see the operation as partially improvised and perhaps connected to Turkey’s internal politics.
“Erdogan needs an international crisis to fuel the domestic climate of crisis and force a fragmented opposition to get in line,” Michael Sahlin of the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies told IRIN. But Sahlin also noted broader Turkish concerns over the emerging political landscape in northern Syria, where pro-PKK Kurds are building an autonomous region under American protection.
Now, Sahlin said, the Turkish leader may be using Afrin to shake things up and “prevent the post-IS puzzle from ending up in the lasting legitimisation of a Kurdish entity south of the border.”
The Turkish attack is likely also connected to the de-escalation deals hammered out between Turkey, Russia, and Iran over the past year. One such deal saw Turkish forces intervene in Idlib, taking up positions among jihadis and other rebels along the southern edge of Afrin. These outposts will now be of great use to Turkey in trying to contain Afrin and smother it economically.
The Syrian army offensive in Idlib
Meanwhile, the Syrian government is moving forward in the Idlib region, just south of Afrin. The largest insurgent stronghold in Syria, Idlib is supplied with humanitarian aid through Turkey, but it is militarily dominated by an al-Qaeda offshoot called Tahrir al-Sham, which works alongside other rebel factions.
The area has emerged as a refuge for pro-opposition Syrians and people trying to escape the military draft, swelling an already considerable population of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In addition, tens of thousands of rebels and their families have been bussed to Idlib by the Syrian government as part of safe-passage deals when besieged cities surrender.
UN reporting suggests that some 2.65 million people now live in Idlib and its surroundings, with almost two million of them in Idlib Province itself and the rest in adjacent areas of Aleppo, Hama, and Latakia provinces.* Nearly half are IDPs.
Fighting in the area has been constant since 2011, and a long line of ceasefires and de-escalation deals has been virtually without impact.
The current offensive began in mid-December, when the Syrian army lunged north from the Hama region toward the jihadi-held Abu Duhour military airport. Abu Duhour was captured on 21 January, leaving the rest of eastern Idlib ripe for the taking.
Again, many suspect a link to secret clauses in the Russian-Iranian-Turkish de-escalation agreements, though details remain scarce.
Idlib’s growing displacement crisis
Regardless of which political arrangements may be involved, civilians are – as usual – suffering the brunt of the violence. Airstrikes have repeatedly hit non-military targets, including health facilities and schools, and Syrians are now fleeing eastern Idlib head over heel.
An estimated 212,140 civilians have been displaced in Idlib in the past month of fighting, according to Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the UN emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, who spoke to IRIN over the weekend. Many have been displaced more than once, and more than half are children.
Aid groups working in the region paint a grim picture. “40,000 people came to the zero point of the border with Turkey”, Mustafa Özbek, a media spokesperson for IHH, the Turkish Islamic charity seen as close to Erdogan’s ruling party, told IRIN. “They keep coming. Due to the recent wave of migration we have already set up over 400 tents. We have two camp sites in Kefer Lusin and Babuska. We delivered food, bread, carpets, blankets and winter clothes to the families.”
Humanitarian organisations expect tens of thousands more to be forced out on the roads in the coming weeks, but the Idlib region is already so saturated with IDPs that local communities are finding it impossible to cope with the influx.
“IDPs are being displaced into already over-stretched camps, informal settlements, and host communities,” Nanki Chawla, Syria assessment manager at the UN-backed research initiative REACH, told IRIN. “As a result, humanitarian conditions are deteriorating not only where the mass displacement is occurring but also within host communities.”
In many areas, several families are now being hosted in the same homes. Some find no shelter at all, and even children are left sleeping outside in the winter cold.
“This weekend there were very heavy storms in parts of Idlib, and a lot of the tents in the camps where people have fled to were either blown down or flooded,” Alun McDonald of Save the Children wrote in an email to IRIN.
Afrin on the brink
Humanitarians now fear that fighting in Afrin will create a new displacement crisis on top of that in Idlib – and while it may not be as severe in terms of numbers, it could be even more difficult to manage. If Afrin is cut off from Aleppo, Turkish troops and rebel proxies will control all trade and aid into the Kurdish enclave, including both cross-border and cross-line routes.
Even if the enclave retains access to Aleppo, the Syrian government may refuse to permit aid deliveries in order to bring the Kurds to their knees. Damascus has habitually refused UN requests to send aid to areas not under its own control, and often seems to be trading aid permits for political or military concessions.
In a worst-case scenario, fleeing Kurdish civilians could be trapped in the mountains in wintertime with little or no aid access.
“We are extremely concerned for the safety of tens of thousands of people and the impact of clashes and military operations on civilians,” said OCHA’s Tom. There are limited signs of displacement so far, she said, with a small number of families from Afrin reported to have fled to Kurdish neighbourhoods in Aleppo city. But the Afrin conflict is only just beginning.
“In Afrin, the conflict has escalated quite quickly over a few days, and as such, it is still too early to tell the humanitarian impact,” said Chawla. “However, we are concerned about the risk that the escalation in conflict could lead to siege-like conditions for both host communities and IDPs that have been displaced into Afrin from other parts of the northwest.”
A sign of what is to come
It is possible that fighting in Idlib will subside once the Syrian army finishes with Abu Duhour and the eastern parts of the province, but that respite won’t be for long. The government is eager to retake the Damascus-Aleppo highway that runs straight through Idlib, and al-Assad will ultimately seek full control.
With Idlib increasingly unable to bear the IDP burden and Turkey’s border still almost completely shut to refugees, things are coming to a crunch. If or when fighting escalates and moves deeper into Idlib, to towns like Saraqeb, Binnish, Jisr al-Shughour, or even Idlib city itself, the crisis is likely to escalate to unseen proportions. Hundreds of thousands of people could find themselves trapped or on the run inside a shrinking pocket of territory, with access to aid tenuous at best.
And if Afrin disappears as a possible refuge for some of those fleeing Idlib while coping with its own displacement crisis, there will really be nowhere left to go.
*The difficulty of calculating population numbers in Syria with any certainty is worth noting, and some previous UN estimates – including the number of inhabitants in besieged eastern Aleppo in late 2016 -- have proved too high. But no other credible reporting exists, and the situation in Idlib is clearly very severe.
This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.