Syrian civilians brace for regime assault on Idlib

Omar Haj Kadour
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Fears have mounted that an attack on Idlib could spark one of the worst humanitarian disasters in Syria's seven-year war

In northwestern Syria, 68-year-old Abu Khaled was among dozens to have set up camp in a field, hoping that Turkish soldiers nearby would shield him from bombardment by Bashar al-Assad's regime.

In the country's last major rebel bastion of Idlib province on Turkey's border, civilians are scrambling to protect themselves from a possible Russian-backed government offensive.

Fears have mounted that any attack on the region of nearly three million people could spark one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria's seven-year civil war.

Dressed in a long white robe and a chequered red-and-white headscarf, Abu Khaled sat by his tent pitched in a field in the southeast of Idlib.

Around him, children played between poles covered in flowery bedsheets and pitched for shelter in the red earth.

One dangled back and forth on an improvised swing, while a woman prepared food in a large saucepan on an open fire.

"There was bombardment of our villages so we came here, near the Turkish outpost," Abu Khaled said.

"It's to protect us," he said, referring to the monitors deployed by rebel backer Turkey just hundreds of metres (yards) away.

Last year, Ankara and regime allies Moscow and Tehran made Idlib a "de-escalation zone" under a deal that saw Turkish monitoring posts set up in the province.

The United Nations has warned that any regime attack on Idlib could displace up to 800,000 people, and urged key players to intervene to avoid a "bloodbath".

- Hospitals plan -

On Friday, the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran are to meet in Tehran to determine Idlib's fate, hours before a UN Security Council meeting in New York.

Aid agencies urged world powers to avoid "the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in Syria's seven-year war".

Humanitarian workers "are already overwhelmed trying to provide shelter, food, water, schooling and healthcare," eight agencies said in a joint statement.

Around half of the residents of Idlib and adjacent areas have already lost their homes in the conflict, the UN says.

Russian-backed government troops have massed around the province in recent weeks, after ousting rebels from other parts of the country.

Moscow says it is bent on eliminating Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate that controls more than half of the province.

Turkish-backed rebels hold much of the rest, while the regime controls a southeastern chunk.

The timing and scope of any attack remain unclear, but healthcare and aid workers are preparing for the worst.

At a hospital in the provincial capital of Idlib this week, staff worked as usual.

Two doctors wearing grey scrubs operated on a patient, while a staff member tested a girl's eyesight in another room.

But their hospital, like others in the province, is drawing up a contingency plan in case the surrounding area comes under attack.

"Every hospital needs to have a special emergency plan," said Mustafa al-Eido, the deputy head of healthcare in Idlib province.

With no means to defend the hospitals against regime or Russian air strikes, they would have to reduce staff or redeploy doctors and nurses to other locations.

"You can't fortify against Russian military equipment," Eido said.

In the first six months of this year, 38 attacks hit medical infrastructure in Idlib province, most blamed on the government or Russia, the UN says.

- More displaced? -

To better respond to air strikes, a joint operations committee has been set up to coordinate between the health service's 50 ambulances and rescue organisations such as the White Helmets, Eido said.

Hospitals are grappling with severe shortages of medicines and also trying to stock up on supplies to deal with any chemical attack, he said.

Assad's regime has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons during the conflict, including in an attack that killed more than 80 people in the Idlib province town of Khan Sheikhun last year.

Since then, staff from 16 hospitals in Idlib and adjacent areas have trained with the World Health Organization in Turkey on how to treat victims of any toxic attack, Eido said.

Aid workers are preparing to deal with any sudden exodus of civilians.

Just outside Idlib province, at a camp for the displaced, its director Yussef Nur inspected reserve supplies of thin foam mattresses, woollen blankets and large outdoor plastic sheets.

"We've planned for any sudden displacement of people," he said.

"We now have around 700 people at the camp" in Mizanaz in neighbouring Aleppo province.

But "we could take in 1,800 to 2,000 more".