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A Syrian child at a displacement camp in the village of al-Ghadfa in southeast Idlib. Photo: NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images
War in Syria

Syria’s looming humanitarian disaster: Idlib

Photo: NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

Fighting in Idlib may spark the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen in Syria since the start of the country’s seven-year civil war. Here’s what you need to know.

Where is Idlib?

Idlib is located in northwestern Syria and is the last remaining area controlled by the opposition. The province is home to nearly three million civilians— half of them are children.

What is happening in Idlib?

We are seeing airstrikes in Idlib, which could mean that the Syrian government, Russia and its allies will launch a full offensive to take control of the province. Many civilians there have survived intense bombardment or fighting elsewhere in Syria and are terrified about what they may now face. This may be the last major battle of the civil war now in its eighth year.

“The world is now watching with baited breath to see what unfolds in Idlib. Civilians had been anxiously hoping for world powers to agree a diplomatic solution that could avoid an assault that would put thousands of innocent lives at risk. The international community must devote its efforts to convince everyone involved to suspend these attacks before they escalate further,” said Lorraine Bramwell, International Rescue Committee’s Syria country director.

The United Nations has called for safe routes for civilians running for their lives, but it's not clear if people will be confident to leave Idlib and find safety in government-controlled areas, given fears of reprisals, detention, and conscription. 

Idlib is home to nearly three million civilians, half of whom are children.

What is the humanitarian situation in Idlib?

Around 1.5 million people in Idlib have been displaced by earlier waves of fighting in Syria, with around 275,000 people living in poor conditions in tented settlements that often lack clean water or toilets. More than 1.7 million are relying on food aid.

A 2017 IRC survey found only around half of the people living in Idlib had enough food to eat each day. Around 5 percent of Syrians were working in Idlib for $40 a month on average, yet, 1 in 5 families had to support someone with a disability or chronic illness.

The health situation in Idlib is already particularly dire with a shortage of medical supplies. Many medical facilities have been attacked in the past. Four hospitals were attacked between September 4-9 where 33 people, including women and children, were killed and 67 were wounded, according to the U.N.

Ongoing insecurity limits people’s access to health services and other essential aid. A car bomb attack on an IRC livelihoods center on May 3 killed one IRC staff member.

The U.N. has warned that as many as 800,000 people may flee towards the Turkish border to escape bombardment or military advance in Idlib. So far, 38,000 civilians have fled from bombardments in southern Idlib and northern Hama, according to the U.N. Majority have escaped close to the Turkish border.

“There is much that can still be done to keep civilians out of harm’s way in Idlib,” said Bramwell. “The international community must devote its efforts to convince everyone involved to suspend these attacks before they escalate further. The Government of Syria, Russia and its allies need to commit to doing all it can to avoid civilian casualties.”

70-year-old Mariam lives in Idlib where she sells sweets and biscuits.

70-year-old Mariam lives in Idlib where she sells sweets and biscuits. Mariam frequently visits an IRC-supported clinic near her home. "My husband died a long time ago. Now I can only depend on myself. I can’t go very far for treatment. Having a clinic close by makes my life easier. Before, I had travel over 90 kilometers (55 miles) to see a doctor, which was very stressful for me".

Photo: Abdullah Hammam/IRC

How is the IRC responding?

The IRC has been working in Idlib since 2012. The IRC and its local partners support ten health facilities as well as two mobile health clinics in Idlib, reaching over 80,000 patients each month. We have four mobile emergency teams that provide critical aid to vulnerable women and girls, including emergency kits stocked with clothing, sanitary items, and other supplies.

The IRC runs a safe space for children to learn and play as well as receive psychosocial support. We plan to distribute 500 kits with games, books and word cards for children to help them cope with their current situation.

In addition, the IRC has two centers in northern Idlib where we have helped thousands of Syrians build small businesses through apprenticeships, business start-up grants and life skills and vocational training.

The world is now watching with baited breath to see what unfolds in Idlib.

We are expanding our mobile health services across the province and ready to reach children and vulnerable women and girls with specialized care. IRC teams are also gearing up to provide emergency cash support to displaced communities to help them pay for food and other essentials.

What can I do to help Syrians in Idlib?

Donate Now. Help the IRC provide vital aid to families in Syria, and support our work around the world.

Learn more ways on how to help Syrian refugees in the U.S. and other families uprooted by conflict.

The IRC in Syria

Last year, the International Rescue Committee provided lifesaving support across Syria to 1.1 million people—almost half of them children—who are struggling to survive a brutal war now in its eighth year. Learn more about our work.