Almost quarter of a million flee homes in Syria's rebel-held Idlib as bombing intensifies

Josie Ensor
Syrians displaced by the ongoing attacks carried out by the Assad regime and Russia, seek refuge in a makeshift tent area in Harbanos town of Idlib - Anadolu

Nearly a quarter of a million people have fled their homes in the last-remaining Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib to escape a Syrian and Russian offensive on the area.

Air strikes and shelling this month have sparked a mass exodus that aid workers warn could lead to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of Syria’s eight-year civil war.

US President Donald Trump yesterday called for the governments in Moscow, Damascus and Tehran to stop the violence.

"Russia, Syria, and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands" of civilians in the northwestern province, Mr Trump tweeted, adding: "Don't do it!" 

The Syrian Response Coordination Group, a relief group active in the north west of the country, said 216,632 people have fled towards the closed Turkish border since the beginning of December.

The group called on other relief agencies to help the displaced amid cold weather and heavy rain. In recent weeks, tent settlements for displaced people have suffered from flooding, adding to their misery.

Footage circulating this week has shown cars and trucks in a long line of traffic trying to leave the city of Maaret al-Numan for towns and villages further north, carrying blankets, mattresses and valuables.

Pictures from inside the city show areas of major destruction where only a few buildings appear to be left standing. Maaret al-Numan has come under heavy bombardment from Russian and Syrian forces in recent weeks as they seek to extend an offensive that originally began in Spring

The city sits on a key highway linking the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, which has been in opposition hands since 2012, making it an important strategic objective for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Fared al-Hor, an activist from Idlib, told the Telegraph the situation was worse than at any time before. “I left my city [Maaret al-Numan] yesterday. Now I am with my family in Salqin, on the Syrian-Turkish border,” he said via What’sApp messenger.

A drone picture taken on December 23 shows empty streets and damaged buildings in the town of Maaret al-Numan in the northwestern Idlib province Credit: AFP

“It is very very bad. Some people don’t even have I am thinking about traveling to Turkey, my younger sister Marwa and I, but I cannot find a way now.”

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, has said the border will remain closed and warned that his country, which hosts more refugees than any other in the word, will not be able to absorb any more fleeing northwest Syria.

Idlib, which is largely under the control of Islamist rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is home to some 3.5 million people, many of whom had been displaced by fighting in other areas. 

The Russian and Syrian bombing campaign against the rebel pocket in Idlib began in April and has killed more than 1,400 people, 100 of them in the last week.

Dareen Khalifa, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the Syrian and Russian offensive on Idlib has made slow progress, “so now they are overcompensating by using devastating levels of air force.”

“If the regime continues and if the rebels don’t surrender, this will mean the worst humanitarian disaster we’ve seen in Syria,” she said.