Military action around Idlib in north west Syria is threatening to force millions of people from their homes and cause a humanitarian catastrophe

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Idlib

An agreement reached between Turkey and Russia in September 2018 to de-escalate conflict in Idlib province has unravelled. Turkey has not disarmed violent jihadi groups in Idlib Province, as set out in the agreement, and Russia has backed the Syrian Government’s push to retake Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria.

Since December 2019, Syrian Government armed forces, backed by Russian warplanes, have pushed north and east into the last major remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. Turkey and Russia are still talking to each other but, amid increasingly strident public statements, the risk of direct and serious confrontation between these military heavyweights and between Turkey and Syria is increasing.

Migration

The fighting has driven about 950,000 people from their homes since December 2019 according to the UN, the biggest displacement surge of the entire war. There are reports of hospitals and schools being deliberately targeted, which would amount to war crimes, according to the UK Government. Sub-zero temperatures and a lack of terrain suitable for putting up tents are making conditions for the refugees particularly hard.

The increased migration could pose a problem for Greece, which is already having problems in refugee camps on Greek islands. In late February, against a backdrop of increasing confrontations between Turkish and Syrian forces, Turkey opened its border with the EU.

Kurdish areas of northern Syria

In the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, largely to the east of Idlib, the Turkish military moved into the area after the US withdrew most of its forces in October 2019.

Turkey has proposed settling some of its millions of Syrian refugees in the areas it now holds. Some argue that Ankara aims to split the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish terrorist group, from the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish group that has played a decisive role in defeating ISIS in Syria.  

ISIS

The Turkish incursion in the north east of Syria has distracted Kurdish-led forces from fighting against ISIS/Daesh, and the Kurds have released some of the tens of thousands of ISIS fighters they have detained, although they are still detaining other suspected ISIS fighters.

The Red Cross has called for home countries to take back their nationals suspected of being ISIS fighters. The UK Government says that fighters should face justice in the region, although it will look at the case of children.

There are concerns that the US withdrawal and the Turkish incursion could allow ISIS to make a comeback. ISIS does not appear to have been weakened by the death in October 2019 of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After the loss of its territory it changed into a more conventional insurgent organisation. Its cells can operate independently of central control, and the group has even managed to increase the rate of its attacks in northern Iraq.

The Global Coalition against Daesh, the US-led campaign, suspended its activities after the death of the Iranian General Soleimani. NATO has announced that it would take over some of the Global Coalition’s training activities. The UK’s contribution is Operation Shader.

  • Commons Research Briefing CBP-8836
  • Author: Ben Smith
  • Topics: Middle East

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