More than a year has passed since Abdulkafi Alhamdo tweeted about what he, his wife, and baby daughter endured during the months-long siege of rebel-held eastern Aleppo by Russian-backed Syrian government forces, as cluster and barrel bombs wreaked havoc around them.
“There was a time when I just cried for two days, not for myself but for my family,” he reported, as he described the savage destruction and death he witnessed around him.
Now the 32-year-old former English language teacher is back where he was 12 months ago, fearing for his two-year-old daughter amid airstrikes and shelling.
This time he’s in Aleppo’s neighboring province of Idlib, Syria’s last opposition-held province, which is in the eye of a Syrian government ground and air assault. And he is bearing witness again on Twitter. “I am really tired of reporting bombings, pictures of killed and injured people, pictures of displaced and all the pain we live,” he said in one tweet.
In another tweet, with a picture of him and presumably his daughter attached, he says there is “No other place to go to. We don't know if we can make it.
He is not alone. United Nations officials estimate more than 210,000 civilians have fled fighting in northwest Syria, abutting Turkey, since mid-December - more than double their calculation last week.
No place to hide
With no letup in a weeks-long government offensive, aid workers warn the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Idlib is on a par with what was seen last year in neighboring Aleppo, where an unrelenting ground and air offensive by Russian warplanes and Syrian government ground forces prompted an international outcry.
U.N. officials and aid workers say many civilians in Idlib, desperate to escape pummeling airstrikes, are refugees from other parts of the war-torn country, many, like Alhamdo from Aleppo, who are now scurrying from town to town, moving as best they can as bombardments reach them.
They have no place to go and are trapped in what was meant to have been a “de-escalation zone” as Syrian government forces expand an offensive on rebels, a mix of jihadist and more moderate insurgents, in what appears to be a determined bid to finish off opposition in Idlib.
Turkey, much as it did last year during the siege of Aleppo, has refused to open its borders to more Syrian refugees. And complicating the situation for fleeing civilians, Turkey appears to be gearing up to launch an offensive on the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said an operation against the Kurdish-held enclave was imminent.
State-run Turkish television channels have been broadcasting pictures on the Syrian border showing the deployment of troops, tanks and armored vehicles and there have been reports of increased Turkish shelling of Afrin. The Turkish troop movements follow a U.S. announcement that it plans to form a 30,000-member border security force made up mainly of Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters, whom Ankara views as an off-shoot of militant Turkish Kurdish separatists.
Idlib province, home to 2.5 million Syrians, was earmarked as a safe haven in an agreement struck last May between Russian, Iranian and Turkish diplomats. Rebel leaders and analysts were never convinced about the good faith of the diplomats, they warned Idlib's inevitable fate would be as a killing field.
UN says non-combatants targeted
President Bashar al-Assad’s elite Tiger Forces have seized more than 40 towns in the southern Idlib countryside since December, and according to Syrian military officials more units are being dispatched, a prelude to an attack on an air base at Abu Dhuhour under the control of al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, rebranded as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
U.N. officials have criticized government forces for targeting hospitals and makeshift clinics, noting the maternity and pediatric hospital in Ma'arrat An Nu'man alone has been attacked three times this month.
A U.N. humanitarian coordination branch (OCHA) report said Tuesday several health clinics in Idlib are being rendered inoperable because of bombardments. Other facilities, it warned, are “running low” on medical supplies.
“We must be able to reach children in need of humanitarian assistance, urgently and without restrictions, wherever they are in Syria. The various parties to the conflict can make that happen by immediately allowing humanitarian workers to reach them with life-saving assistance,” says Fran Equiza, an official with the U.N. children agency.
The offensive on Idlib is unfolding just weeks before peace talks are scheduled in the Russian resort town of Sochi. Syrian opposition groups have said they will boycott the negotiations, arguing Moscow is using talks as a tactic of war. Some analysts say Assad's latest offensive may, though, force some rebels to participate, if for no other reason than to try to get a pause in fighting.