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Is Syria’s Idlib the Next Gaza Strip?
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“Many relatives of mine were living in camps near the border with Turkey,” says Huda Husein, a 25-year-old teacher living in the rebel-held enclave of Idlib in northwest Syria. “But last month they returned home [to the cities and villages] because they prefer dying under an airstrike to dying in the camps.” A cousin told her that “we are just fleeing from danger to danger”, explaining that the misery of trying to survive in cramped tents was worse than bombardment by Russia and Syrian government forces.

The breaking point for the 2.6 million Syrians hostile to the president, Bashar al-Assad, who had taken refuge in Idlib, came this summer. The US introduced devastating economic sanctions on Syria which combined with the onset of the coronavirus epidemic to turn a crisis into a calamity. Together, the sanctions and the disease hit a population already short of food, shelter and medical care. All Syria is suffering badly, but Huda says that “Idlib is the most miserable part of the country” and is suffering the worst.

The Idlib opposition enclave is described by Fabrice Balanche, an expert on northern Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as the “next Gaza Strip”. Wrecked by bombing and artillery fire, the pocket is only a third of the size it was three years ago following a series of Syrian government advances.

Most of its inhabitants had fled to a very small area along the Turkish border to escape the bombs and shells and to be close to the distribution points for foreign aid. Some, like Huda Husein (not her real name), stayed further south in and around Idlib city where living conditions are better, but the threat of war is worse.

In an interview with The Independent, she paints a graphic picture of the mood of despair that is sweeping through the last opposition stronghold, aside from the Kurdish-held region in north east Syria. She describes how her aunt fled Idlib city a year-and-a-half ago to live in a camp for displaced persons after her neighbour’s house was partially destroyed in an airstrike. The aunt has now moved back, saying that “dying in a minute under a Russian airstrike is much better than dying from coronavirus like a dog”.

Huda taught for two years in different camps, which she believes number 1,200, where there is little health care and no room for social distancing. “I have seen tents where fifteen people were sleeping head-to-toe like prisoners in Palmyra [a notorious government prison].” Even more shocking for her was the number of families without even a tent to sleep in. “They just use carpets and mats to make a fragile shelter,” she says.

Deprivation in Idlib was already bad after nine years of civil war during which 1.3 million displaced Syrians, in addition to the existing population, crowded into an ever-shrinking area. It was difficult to see how life could get any worse, but two events this summer ensured that they did just that. The first was the new American sanctions – called the Syria Caesar Civilian Protection Act – signed into law by president Donald Trump last year and implemented on 17 June this year. Supposedly intended to deter Assad from repressing ordinary Syrians, it targeted with severe penalties any foreign individual or business doing business with Syria.

The measures turned all Syrians, pro and anti-Assad, into economic pariahs subjected to a crippling economic siege. The embargo led to the collapse of the Syrian currency and a steep rise in the price of basic foodstuffs, with wheat, rice and bulgur tripling in price. This happened in a country where the World Food Programme said in June that “famine could very well be knocking at the door”.

The new law was given a humanitarian guise by being named after the alias of the Syrian government photographer who had taken pictures of the bodies of tens of thousands of Syrians killed by the regime (Syrian officials deny the accusation). A more likely and less altruistic motive is that Washington wants to deny Russia, Iran and Assad an outright victory in the Syrian conflict by ensuring that the country will not see a recovery from the present level of devastation, even if Assad stays in control.

As with the UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein thirty years ago, the Syrian leadership is unlikely to be seriously damaged by enhanced sanctions since the burden will fall on the poor and the powerless. ‘Political elites are typically well placed to avoid sanctions’ impact or even profit from the scarcity they create, while the real harm hits the broad majority of the population,’ says the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

This is certainly what is happening in Syria with the worst hit being war-shattered Idlib. As the Syrian pound collapsed, the local Government of Salvation (dominated by the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) switched to the Turkish lira but the already inadequate standard of living still plummeted. “My own salary fell from the equivalent of $160 to $100 a month,” says Huda, “while my brother, who is a construction worker, saw his pay fall from $6 to $3 a day”. At the same time, prices soared so even filling the house water tank with drinkable water cost too much. Her account confirms the ICG’s conclusion that sanctions intended to protect Syrian civilians from the regime “may end up hurting them instead”.

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Within a few weeks of the Caesar Act, a second disaster struck people in Idlib. The coronavirus epidemic arrived late there because of the enclave’s isolation, and was brought in, locals believe, by Turkish doctors and nurses (this is unlikely since it also began spreading in the rest of Syria at this time). A month ago, Huda’s brother contracted the virus and stayed at home for three days. “He didn’t have medicine, just some paracetamol to kill the pain and to allow him to sleep,” she says. A doctor reached by phone told him to quarantine for fourteen days, but he decided that he had to go back to work, telling his family that “war is waged by humans but coronavirus came from God and nobody can stop it.” Huda hopes that, as a construction worker, he will have the physical strength to survive.

Even if he had sought further medical help, there would have been little to give. A friend in the Health Authority in Idlib told Huda that in the whole enclave there are only about 3,000 hospital beds for almost three million people. Many hospitals had been destroyed or damaged by Russian and Syrian government bombing and artillery fire. At first’ she says, people tried to self-isolate, but over-crowding made this impossible even after people knew they were infected.In most of Syria, the shooting war is over as Assad’s forces recaptured opposition centres, but the fighting continues in Idlib as well as in northern Aleppo province that has been occupied by Turkish forces.

The Syrian government wants to keep up the bombing to make sure that the cities and towns of Idlib remain largely uninhabited and do not become a viable opposition hub. Its offensives since 2017 have reduced the pocket to a third of its original size or 3,000 square kilometres. Yet even this small area is unevenly inhabited with 2 million in the camp strung along the Syrian side of the Turkish border which is outside artillery range and is little bombed. Some of Huda’s relatives may have returned to their homes further south, but most people have little confidence in the ceasefire agreed between Russia and Turkey on 5 March. A resumption of a full scale Syrian government offensive depends on decisions reached in Moscow and Ankara.

In most of Syria, the shooting war is over as Assad’s forces recaptured opposition centres, but the fighting continues in Idlib as well as in northern Aleppo province that has been occupied by Turkish forces. The Syrian government wants to keep up the bombing to make sure that the cities and towns of Idlib remain largely uninhabited and do not become a viable opposition hub. Its offensives since 2017 have reduced the pocket to a third of its original size or 3,000 square kilometres.

Yet even this small area is unevenly inhabited with 2 million in the camp strung along the Syrian side of the Turkish border which is outside artillery range and is little bombed.

Some of Huda’s relatives may have returned to their homes further south, but most people have little confidence in the ceasefire agreed between Russia and Turkey on 5 March. A resumption of a full scale Syrian government offensive depends on decisions reached in Moscow and Ankara.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Syria, Turkey 
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  1. TG says:

    Some additional background:

    Remember that the Syrian government deliberately engineered a massive population explosion. Seriously, they made the sale and possession of contraceptives a crime! (See “Demographic Developments and Population: Policies in Ba’thist Syria (Demographic Developments and Socioeconomics)”, by Onn Winkler). The population of Syria increased exponentially right up through 2010, with a doubling time of about 18 years, at which point food ran out and population started trending downwards (not so much due to outright famine, as to poverty, lack of medical care, warfare, and people fleeing the country.

    A doubling time of 18 years. Consider what that means:

    1974: 5.5 million people (actual!)
    1992: 11 million people (actual)
    2010: 22 million people (actual) (Oopsie! The fresh water ran out!)
    2028: 44 million people (projected)
    2046: 88 million people
    2064: 176 million people
    2082: 352 million people
    2100: 754 million people

    No, Syria won’t have a population of three quarters of a billion people by 2100, as in all such cases for countries without an open frontier, somewhere along the line things will fall apart and limited resources will constrain population growth. (Remember: there is no absolute upper limit, the issue is how fast and how reliably people can increase that limit).

    One assumes that since the civil war, the fertility rate of Syria’s extended population has fallen to more moderate levels, but with a low age distribution there is still going to be a ‘demographic momentum’ effect – even with an average of only two kids per family, the population would still triple before stabilizing. There are no longer any valid statistics on this, but the government-forced population explosion is likely still going to be pressing down on everything, and in particular likely be a threat to Turkey. Although as pointed out here, all those desperate people have the benefit for the rich of lovely cheap labor and relatively high rents and prices…

    Why does this get no coverage in the press? Well consider that the elites of the United States, not content for post-1970 immigration policy to have increase the population from a projected 239 million to 340 million and counting, are now seriously considering policies that will push America’s population to a billion and beyond. Mentioning the truth about Syria’s government created massive population boom just might make people connect the dots, and wonder if that would really be so wonderful for the average person…

    • Thanks: Zimriel
    • Replies: @karel
  2. Zimriel says:

    All I can say to the Qaeda-supporting persecutors of Christians in Idlib is what Mary Renault wrote in one of her Greek novels –
    – “This is defeat. Avoid it.”

  3. Blade says:

    If you are so against Turkey’s occupation, then open your borders and take Syrians in. Turkey isn’t your border guard and we will not forever keep Syrians in Turkey. Take Syrians in or shut up.

    • Replies: @animalogic
  4. Regular unz readers know that Ron Unz allows this corporate media mouthpiece to publish here for a “balanced” view. Informed people know there are no “rebels” in Syria, only dupes and terrorists taking part in the Israeli, Turkish, Saudi, and American secret war on Syria.

  5. @Blade

    Where did this dopey comment escape from? “take Syrians in or shutup” ? Because the author is SO against Turkey?
    Here’s a better idea — turkey can remove all its illegal troops from Syria & then encourage it’s US allies to remove their illegal troops.
    Given that I’m sure Russia will be happy to withdraw to its bases, & if the US would be kind enough to fuck off with its illegal sanctions, maybe Syria might rebuilt & many Syrians will want to go home… Why would they want to stay in Turkey? That Ergodan inspired sneaky, 2-faced hole?

    • Replies: @Blade
  6. The vast amount of the population in Syria is Sunni, although not of a fanatical Wahhabi fashion – which Daddy Assad made sure of back in the late 1980s. This is why I believe Turkey has allowed so many Syrians to set up camp temporarily. Russia has it’s own geopolitical reasons for helping the Assad government -namely their naval base on the Mediterranean. I hear over and over from many internet sources about the Oded Yinon Plan. It will not come to full fruition.

  7. karel says:
    @TG

    Most countries have an exponential population growth, hence it is a real discovery that you mention it in connection with Syria. The population in 1974 was more like 7.5 millions that the figure of 5.5.

  8. A123 says:

    There is still hope for Idlib.

    The UN has not intervened to make problem unsolvable. If an UNRWA2 is established, the disaster will be made permanent…. Has the UN ever made anything better?

    PEACE 😇

  9. Blade says:
    @animalogic

    Author is pretending that the problem is stemming from Turkey’s occupation, while the reality is that Turkey is trying to keep Syrians in Syria while everyone else is trying to expel them to Turkey to create space for their terrorist proxies.

    Why would they want to stay in Turkey? That Ergodan inspired sneaky, 2-faced hole?

    Oh how stupid you guys can be? Here is the answer: because they are Arabs that’s why. Many of them are even happy that someone started civil war so that they could migrate to Turkey / Europe. They say unless Assad is gone they don’t want to return, however they don’t have refugee status in Turkey.

    Simple fact is that your governments are doing the bidding of Zionists, and you are blaming Turkey for not making it easier. In fact, stupid Eurotards blame Turks for sending Syrians back to Syria, claim that Turkey is ethnically cleansing Kurds by sending Syrians back to their homes (meanwhile they are burning with rage to not let Syrians into Europe). What a chutzpah.

    I hate Erdogan more than you do. Once we kick his sorry ass out, we will also kick his Arabs. Don’t forget to open your countries and show us Turks how civilized and humane you are.

  10. vot tak says:

    Basically zionazi-gay propaganda using zionazi-gay sources as reference.

  11. The solution to the “refugee” problem is really quite simple. The $audis and the Gulf dictatorships were big on supporting the Takfiri and Salifist terrorists imported from all over the Islamic world who made war on the Syrian state. Muslim Brotherhood types within Syria tended to take the side of the Western and Wahabi states in the Arabian peninsula. As being in fair measure responsible for the war in Syria which ultimately resulted in pro-Islamist Syrians running for cover under “Sultan” Erdogan’s Crescent-Star banner in Idlib and parts of a couple other provinces; those terrorist-backers ought to welcome immigration from their brothers in arms, now cooped up in the Idlib box.

    Islamist fanatics have no business whatsoever being taken in by European nations, nor would they fit in under Erdogan’s regime as they are Syrian Arabs, not Turks. The oil-soaked Wahabis on the peninsula import many thousands of worker-bees from India, Pakistan and the Philippines. Would it not be more logical to bring in immigrants who already share the language as well as the devolved form of Islam practiced in those nations in the Gulf?

  12. WJ says:

    It give me great joy that Assad is still in power but it saddens me that my country has committed crimes against humanity by fomenting this endless war.

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