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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

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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?

Many civilians there have survived intense bombardment or fighting elsewhere in Syria and were terrified about a looming offensive from the Syrian government, Russia and its allies to take control of the province.

On Sep. 17, Turkey and Russia agreed to create a buffer zone in southern Idlib between the Syrian army and armed opposition groups. While an impending assault that would have put thousands of innocent lives at risk seems to be averted, we have seen previously how de-escalation deals haven’t lasted long-term.

“The people of Idlib will rest easier tonight knowing that they are less likely to face an impending assault,” Lorraine Bramwell, Syria country director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a Sep. 17 Washington Post article. “This could be a win for diplomacy, and that’s what Syria needs more of to solve this crisis.”

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.

“Everything is expensive, bread, electricity, rent, everything. if you don’t have money to buy you will die of hunger,” said Um Ragheb, 35, who is struggling to raise her five children by herself in the village of Deir Hassan. She fled from her home in Baba Amar, in the city of Homs four years ago and is unable to work because of a hand injury. "We left [all] of our things at Homs, [but] a few clothes for the kids,” she adds.

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.

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.