December 24, 2019
The relentless assault on Idlib
The relentless airstrikes campaign on Idlib by the Syrian regime and Russian air forces predicted by many analysts, including this author, remains a defining battlefield to the regime in the Syrian conflict, nine years later. Seen as a last opposition stronghold populated by extremists and a millions of civilians and internally displaced people (IDP), Idlib province and its surroundings are a deadly place.
The ongoing assault against civilians in their market places, hospitals, schools, bakeries, mosques, refugee camps, and even prisons, is unbearable. As the attack in the southern town of Maaret al-Numan on December 22 shows us, there is no sign of a slowdown of attacks. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA)’s latest report, tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing to the north to Idlib city and IDP camps along the border due to the assault.
Moreover, the timing of this assault is especially brutal during the winter months as shelter, food, and winter assistance is desperately needed. This most recent assault began on December 16 and intensified in southern Idlib. There are reports of at least 25,000 families fleeing within the last week. Humanitarian organizations called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) on December 19 to adopt year-long Resolution 2449 to allow for cross border humanitarian assistance into Syria. It is a resolution used annually for the past five years to provide humanitarian assistance across four border crossing points. However, as the UNSC voted on the resolution the next day, Russia and China vetoed it. As devastating as it is to continue to hear of intense strikes on helpless civilians, this is a pattern of offensive attacks that occurred all year.
In an effort to see the full picture, we captured data over the course of 2019 to identify trends and develop a better sense of the implications of this offensive as well as the scale of the attacks targeting specific locations and areas in Idlib.
Due to limitations in war-time reporting, our data is naturally incomplete and is more of a snapshot of the number of airstrikes and casualties that took place within Idlib province during 2019. The data is sourced primarily from Turkish and Arabic outlets, which provide general specifications about locations and casualties within those locations.
Additionally, all information given is on strikes conducted by either the Syrian regime, Russian forces, or in conjuncture with one another as that was the data available and most verified.
While some sources give details about attacks on health centers, schools, mosques, etc., others only list “residential areas” and do not define whether these areas consist of refugee camps or not. We have come to understand them to mean public areas of gathering as well as private residences of citizens.
Some sources give exact numbers of those wounded, where most sources give the exact reported number of deaths. Many sources only state “many were wounded” without giving specificity, therefore, we have denoted where “many” is stated to be approximately 10, which is relative to the amount of people killed in the same strike. With this in mind, the numbers of casualties is not exact.
Additionally, some locations do not denote any recorded deaths and casualties, the reason for this is reporting mentioned several locations and gave one total number that was not broken down by casualty versus wounded or location.
Furthermore, some sources gave large numbers of deaths stating that a handful died in one town and then another group in a second town. The remainder of the total casualties is unaccounted for and simply stated that the rest died in the Idlib countryside.
While this data deals with Idlib province specifically, there is also data on towns included on the border with Hama. So, while we have included some information on strikes in these towns, there is additional information on other towns in Hama province in the sources included, all from airstrikes conducted by Syrian regime and Russian forces and available to download and export.
Verification and access have and will continue to remain a challenge in recording overall casualties. In 2018, around 20,000 deaths were recorded in Syria; one of the lowest in the nine-year period. Prior to that in 2017, a range of 33,000-39,000 deaths occurred, of those 10,000 were civilians across the country.
Numbers for casualties this year will continue to come in as the year comes to an end and attacks continue. According to one source, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, roughly 4,647 civilians were killed across Syria in 2019; which is less than half of the year before. A significant decrease in deaths, and of those around 15 percent were concentrated in the highly populated area in the northwest, Idlib.
Despite these limitations on the data collected during a conflict, there are clear trends found in the type of places targeted. The broad term of residential areas is hit the most frequently causing the most amount of damage. Specifically, Khan Sheikhoun suffered the most amount of attacks over the twelve-month period.
Khan Sheikhoun has long been understood to be a strategic area to the regime because of its geographic location straddling a key highway used for transport linking the north and south of the country. It also coincides with a major battle that occurred in August to retake the town from opposition fighters which forced them north and east away from the area.
Quick and merciless
It was thought that the battle for Idlib would be fairly quick and merciless much like the battles in Aleppo, Homs, Moadamiyah, and others. But the attacks on Idlib instead are a persistent debilitating unending wave of attacks that leaves its population unable to recover this past year.
As the international community is unable or unwilling to effect real change in Syria or its neighbors, it will continue to be another endless war stagnating and without a resolution. Much like other conflicts, the people of the country will have to navigate this reality and make their homes elsewhere to start anew, if they can.
Reema Hibrawi is an associate director in the Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council and the editor for MENASource and SyriaSource.
Christiana Haynes, Adam Aluzri, and Rana Abdulhadi are all former interns with the Middle East programs that supported the data collection and analysis of this article.