Syria: No safe place for civilians in Idlib

Displaced people gather for safety in Idlib province, in northwestern Syria.
Syria 2019 © MSF
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The Syrian government and its allies have intensified their offensive on Syria’s Idlib province, which has been largely controlled by rebel groups. Daily bombardments have caused the deaths of many civilians and forced tens of thousands to flee in search of safety.

As forces loyal to the government seek to regain the last remaining rebel territory, more and more civilians are sheltering along the border. But the camps on the Syrian-Turkish border are overwhelmed, and displaced people are no longer safe close to the border. Hakim Khaldi, MSF’s head of mission in Syria, described the bombing of a displaced persons camp in Qah, close to the Turkish border, in late November.

The conflict continues in northwestern Syria between the Russian-backed Syrian army and armed rebel groups of different affiliations. What happened in Qah on November 20? 

A missile targeted the Qah displaced persons camp on the evening of November 20. The camp, set up in 2012, and providing shelter to around 4,000 refugees, is situated in Idlib province five kilometers (three miles) from the Turkish border. According to Idlib’s Department of Health, 12 people—eight of them children—were killed and 58 wounded in the attack.

Many families’ tents were partially or totally burned. Finding themselves without shelter, they moved on to other camps. Some families had already changed camps several times before reaching Qah, where they thought they’d be safe. No longer feeling secure, many of the displaced people have since fled to camps in Atmeh, even closer to the border, or to the homes of relatives.

A team at the MSF hospital in Atmeh was ready to provide assistance with treating people wounded in the attack, but in the end they were taken to other hospitals in the region. The town of Qah was also bombed on the evening of November 20 and the maternity hospital was partially damaged.

What’s different about this particular attack on a displaced persons camp?

The attack was unprecedented. It’s the first time an area close to the border has been bombed, and it’s a place where people felt safe precisely because of its proximity to the border. 

Until that point, the proximity of the border appeared to protect civilians. So, what was once considered a safe place isn’t safe anymore. Being close to the border is also important for hospitals. Unlike other medical facilities, MSF’s hospital in Atmeh and those like it near the Turkish border have so far been left unscathed. The hospital MSF opened in 2012 is now the only facility providing specialized treatment to burn patients in opposition-held areas in the northwest. It has been able to stay open all these years because it’s in an area near the border that’s been shielded from airstrikes.

What’s the situation elsewhere in Idlib province? 

At the end of March, the Syrian army and its Russian ally launched a major offensive against the jihadist group HTS [Hayat Tahrir al Sham] and “terrorist” organizations—to quote the Syrian authorities—in southern Idlib province that lasted until the end of August. Medical facilities, schools, mosques and markets were all bombed. It’s very common for medical facilities to be targeted in airstrikes. According to the Information Management Unit, a Syrian NGO that collects data on aid, from March 1 to August 24, 2019, 34 clinics, medical centers and hospitals were bombed in Idlib province and in nearby areas in the provinces of Hama and Aleppo.

The offensive also forced people to flee to the north of Idlib province where airstrikes are more sporadic. Our teams providing medical care in makeshift camps in the Deir Hassan area saw displaced people arriving throughout the offensive. Then, on August 31, the Russian authorities declared a unilateral ceasefire and some families who had fled returned to the south. But the bombing has since started up again. 

As a new front opened in the northeast of the country at the beginning of October, people living in the Idlib region were hoping for a return to calm. But this has not materialized. In fact, Turkey has launched a military operation to establish a buffer zone along its border, and the Syrian army and its allies have mobilized their forces in this northeast region that shares a border with Turkey. None of this has put a stop to the bombing in Idlib province and, yet again, at the beginning of December, markets in Saraqib and Maarat el-Numan were targeted. These deadly attacks on densely populated areas are terrorizing civilians.