As I walked among the tombstones that demarcate the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial for the infamous 1995 massacre, I could not help but draw parallels with my country’s own conflict. These 8,000 innocent Bosniak Muslims, left to be slaughtered by Bosnian Serb troops under the command of Ratko Mladic, demonstrate the deadly consequences of the international community’s failure to protect civilians occupying the UN’s declared “Safe Haven” zone. I fear that it is this same fate that may befall some of the millions of civilians currently residing in Syria’s Idlib province.
For the past year and a half, the Idlib region has served as a safe haven for other regions of Syria that have seen violent conflict. As Bashar al-Assad’s offensive has seized control of most of Syria within the past year and a half using military aggression with the support of Iranian fighters, as well as aerial bombardment by their Russian allies, in areas such as Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and most recently Daraa, opposition groups have acquiesced to ‘reconciliation’ agreements under the condition that any opposition fighters or civilians unable or unwilling to live under regime control be granted the option to relocate to Idlib. These fighters, their families, and countless civilians have been transported in buses by the Syrian regime under the supervision of Russian forces from their homes to the Idlib province, in what is far from an act of reconciliation but rather a targeted practice of forced displacement and “demographic engineering”, which is a violation of Rule 129 of Customary International Humanitarian Law.
The population of Idlib, which once numbered around 750,000, has swelled to nearly 3.5 million in recent years due to the influx of internally displaced people seeking safety and security. Currently, the province is a distorted reflection of the diverse Syrian nation that existed prior to Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on his own populace, containing Syrians from all over the country and from different ethnicities and religious groups. While a certain percentage of Idlib residents are members of armed opposition groups and an extremist presence exists in the form of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and a select few other radical groups, the vast majority of the province is populated by civilians. It is these individuals whose safety is of immediate concern.
While Idlib has been the evacuation point for the rest of Syria, there no longer remains anywhere for civilians to evacuate to in the event of an attack by the Syrian regime. Over 3 million refugees have entered Turkey since the Syrian conflict began, stretching Turkey beyond its ability to take in and care for those fleeing to its southern border, and there is no safe passage or open border elsewhere that residents of Idlib can hope to reach. Thus when the regime turns its eye to Idlib, which as of July 27, 2018 Bashar al-Assad directly stated his intention to do, these civilians will be trapped and left to be caught in to crossfire of the regime’s campaign against northern opposition groups.
According to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, civilians and all persons not taking part in combat may under no circumstances be the object of attack. The Syrian regime has repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for these laws, directly targeting civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and schools while also detaining civilians and peaceful protesters. As of July of this year, the regime has released more than 7,000 death certificates for detainees that bear evidence of their death under torture, demonstrating the confidence acquired by Bashar al-Assad’s continued impunity for his repeated war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Without international intervention, once the Syrian regime consolidates its hold in the country’s southern provinces, they will turn northward towards Idlib while maintaining their narrative that the province is under the sole control of al-Nusra despite clear evidence to the contrary. In line with his prior military tactics, observers and military experts expect this campaign will be marked by heavy aerial bombardment by Russian forces, targeting of civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, and the use of chemical weapons. With nowhere else left to flee, millions of Syrians would be sitting targets.
With each disturbing image released from the Syrian conflict, of children pulled from piles of rubble and of mutilated corpses of women, men, and children detained by the Syrian government, the world has decried the brutality of the Syrian conflict and vowed to take action. The civilians, women, and children of Idlib standing waiting for those nations to fulfill their vow, or to leave them to their fate at the hands of a government whose repeated war crimes have been extensively documented, just as the people of Srebrenica did in 1995.
This article was written by Hind Kabawat Adjunct Professor and Director of Peace Building program in George Mason University CRDC, Deputy head of the Syrian Negotiation Commission in Geneva and Olivia Barrett, an M.S. candidate at George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Ms. Barrett currently serves as an intern for the Syrian Negotiation Commission’s Geneva Office.