A senior World Food Program official warns that a Syrian government offensive to wrest the besieged province of Idlib from rebel armed groups would be catastrophic and trigger a humanitarian crisis.
Now that the besieged enclave of eastern Ghouta has fallen, Idlib remains the last rebel stronghold in Syria. Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian air forces, are advancing on Idlib, which is home to 2 million people.
One half of this population is composed of internally displaced people from formerly besieged territories such as eastern Aleppo, Homs and eastern Ghouta. As part of truce agreements with the Syrian government, rebels and their families have been taken to Idlib.
The World Food Program country director in Syria, Jakob Kern, says Idlib has about 100,000 armed fighters from these different places. He says the fighters do not comprise one homogeneous army. Rather, they represent different rebel factions that are fighting each other. Caught in between these groups, he says, are civilians.
"I am not speculating anymore what can happen in Idlib. But, it certainly will be the next big battle and I just hope for the sake of the 2 million people that are living there, that we find a political solution because if we do that again, if we see the same pattern again, it is going to be a much bigger catastrophe than we have seen in east Aleppo," he said.
Kern warns a battle for Idlib will trigger a humanitarian nightmare. He says he does not know where people will flee as the border between Idlib and Turkey is closed. Kern says delivering food to the war victims will not be an issue as WFP has a system worked out with local partners for distributing rations.
But, Kern tells VOA, providing proper shelter for hundreds of thousands of displaced people is very difficult. He says cramming thousands of people into schools and other structures without latrines and such basic necessities as blankets and mattresses is dehumanizing.
Kern says 2 million people on the move from Idlib would stretch the capacity of what the WFP and other aid agencies would be able to do.