(IDLIB, Syria) — As fighting over Syria’s last rebel-held stronghold intensifies and puts U.S. ally Turkey in direct conflict with Russia, there is a growing chorus for the U.S. to do something about the dire humanitarian crisis.
Nearly one million people have been displaced since December by Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s offensive into the Idlib province, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-commanded forces. Relief organizations are struggling to respond to the overwhelming need amid freezing temperatures and a lack of basic resources — like tents.
But for the four million civilians in Idlib, there is no where to go as Assad’s forces back them closer to the border with Turkey, which remains shut as Turkey struggles to host nearly four million Syrian refugees already.
Turkey and the Syrian forces it arms and backs have been pushing to hold Assad’s offensive at bay, with direct clashes on Thursday. But while the Trump administration has condemned the offensive and vocalized support to Turkey, advocates — including, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria — are urging for U.S. intervention.
“What’s happening in Idlib is the worst case scenario we have worried about in Syria since 2011. We never wanted it to come, we hoped it wouldn’t come, and it’s here,” said Ambassador Robert Ford, who was forced to leave Syria amid threats from Assad when he served as U.S. envoy from 2011 to 2014.
He continued, “This is not just another problem in Syria. The scale is much greater than anything the world has seen in recent decades.”
More than 900,000 people have fled their homes or shelters in Idlib, according to the United Nations, most of whom were previously displaced by Syria’s now nine-year old civil war. Approximately 80% of the displaced are women and children, facing severe winter weather conditions like snow and freezing temperatures.
The military offensive has killed hundreds of civilians, according to war monitoring groups. But the freezing temperatures have killed seven children, according to the humanitarian group Save the Children.
“We are striving to save lives, but the space for these efforts is shrinking,” Filippo Grandi, the high commissioner for refugees at the U.N. said Thursday.
That’s in part because aid organizations themselves have also been forced to flee, including Huzayfa al Khateeb, a Syrian radio reporter and volunteer relief worker. He was forced to flee from his home in western Ghouta outside Damascus three years ago, but in Idlib in recent days, he’s been forced to live in his car while so many sleep outside or in the rubble of schools, hospitals, and other buildings bombed by Assad’s forces and Russia.
“There is no place safe, in Idlib and in any place. Every day, they are bombing us,” al Khateeb said. “They can’t live here because the Assad regime is bombing us, Russian regime, and they can’t — there is no single town, no single area you can live.”
For Joumane Mohamad and her two young children, they are lucky enough to have a house to rent. But the psychological toll of the bombing has deepened, even after nine years of war have forced them to move to 10 different houses across the country.
“I hope that you will let the world know what sufferings, what pain, what frustration, and what inhuman conditions that we are living here now,” she said during a briefing call with al Khateeb, organized by Refugees International, an advocacy organization. “We feel as if the world has betrayed us, as if the world has abandoned us.”
Mothers are “suffering the most because of all the burdens and responsibilities and fears they have to deal with,” Mohamad said, adding every morning feels “as if it could be our last meeting.”
She said she tried to smuggle her family, including her nine-year old and her nursery-school age son, across the border into Turkey once — but was scared away by gunfire.
Turkey has all but shut down its border in recent months, overwhelmed by the 3.6 million Syrians it already hosts, according to U.N. data.
Instead, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to use military force to repel Assad’s offensive if it isn’t halted. Erdogan has armed, trained and backed rebel forces throughout Syria’s civil war and entered into agreements with Russia and Iran to create safe zones in areas, including Idlib — which Assad, Russia and Iran have later seized.
U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey traveled to Ankara last Wednesday to meet with senior Turkish officials and offer U.S. assistance for its NATO ally. Before the trip, Jeffrey told reporters in Washington the U.S. was “looking at the various things we can do” to halt the offensive, including more sanctions, but hinted at no immediate action.
That’s not enough, according to activists who rallied on Capitol Hill Thursday.
“What’s also more outrageous is the lack of outrage that we’re seeing across the United States and in the Western world,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency taskforce, an advocacy group. “No one is talking about what’s unfolding there, no one is speaking out for children, some of whom have been burned to a cinder.”
He and Ford called on the Trump administration and Congress to “take some prompt steps,” to halt the offensive, including finding funds for humanitarian groups to deal with the “unprecedented” need, press Russian officials to halt their support and back Turkey in what way they can.
President Donald Trump once claimed credit for “saving” Idlib by tweeting his opposition to a previous Assad offensive in 2018. But while he told Assad and Russia “Don’t do it!” in December, his tweet was undercut by his clear unwillingness to take action to stop any fighting that he does not see as America’s problem.
“Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land,” he tweeted in October. “I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”
But Ford warned that whatever comes next, the crisis will spill out of Syria, just as Assad and Russia’s assault on Aleppo led to mass refugee flows into Europe that bolstered far-right politics across the continent.
While the Turkish-Syrian border is closed for now, al Khateeb and Mohamad both said there are plans to storm the border because they say it may be Syrians’ only option to survive.
Even if it kills “1,000 people, the rest will save their lives and cross the border and be in safety,” al Khateeb said.
He added, “This is what people are thinking about because there is no other chance, no other choice for us.”
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