• Full-scale offensive on northwest Syria leads to displacement of millions, a high number of civilian casualties, and severe humanitarian needs

    Latest update: 21/06/2019

    Probability

    Highly unlikely Somewhat likely Highly likely

    Impact

    Very low Moderate Major

    A full-scale offensive on opposition-held northwest Syria is looming, following conflict escalation between the Government of Syria (GoS) and opposition forces. Fighting in southern Idleb and northern Hama governorates intensified in January and has further escalated since April, when regime forces launched a series of barrel bomb attacks and artillery strikes on essential infrastructure, aiming to regain control over strategic points?. Fighting increased despite the de-escalation deal between Turkey and Russia that declared the region a demilitarised zone since September 2018.

    An all-out escalation of conflict in the northwest has been anticipated since 2017, following evacuation deals between the GoS and opposition forces and civilians perceived to be opposition supporters, resulting in the transfer of large groups of people to Idleb and surrounding area. The GoS has been clear about wanting to retake the area at the earliest opportunity. A full-scale assault, however, would require a political decision supported by Russia, whose support largely depends on how this would impact their relations with Turkey. Turkey backs the opposition forces of The National Liberation Front (NLF) and wants to avoid a full-scale offensive close to its borders. Turkey and Russia’s relationship has been strained by the recent conflict escalation. Russia allowed the GoS to attack Idleb and Hama without waiting for agreement with Turkey. Turkey then delivered weapons to opposition forces.? Recent attacks from the GoS on Turkish military posts in Idleb are likely to increase tensions.? Further advancement from government forces into Idleb without diplomatic coordination between Russia and Turkey may trigger Turkey to increase support to opposition. In such a scenario, the GoS would likely further intensify its own operations. While there is a risk of this situation materialising, the probability of a full-scale Russian-backed offensive in the next six months is low. Such an operation would be militarily costly and draw unwanted attention to Russia’s role in Syria. It is probable that Russia and Turkey seek to sustain their relationship and the conflict de-escalates after the GoS takes control over strategic targets.

    Impact

    A full-scale offensive on the northwest of Syria would have disastrous humanitarian consequences. The recent surge in violence displaced over 270,000 people in May, killed hundreds of civilians, and caused severe needs for healthcare, shelter, food, and protection. Airstrikes have targeted schools, medical facilities and busy places such as markets. Widespread displacement has placed further strain on camps. Many of the newly displaced are without shelter, living in open fields or under trees exposed to the elements. The conflict has destroyed vital food crops in the region, worsening food insecurity. Attacks against humanitarian responders and the ongoing fighting have severely restricted humanitarian access. Most aid activities in the conflict zones have been suspended. ?

    Over 3.5 million people are living in the northwest, including 1.3 million existing IDPs, almost all of whom have existing humanitarian needs that would be severely compounded in the event of an escalation. ? Further escalation in conflict would cause a staggering loss of civilian life and drive millions to the Turkish border. It is unclear whether Syrians would be able to cross the border. If entry to Turkey becomes impossible, multi-sectoral humanitarian needs would likely build along the border and overwhelm response capacity. Pre-existing vulnerabilities and reducing coping capacities following eight years of war in Syria would exacerbate the humanitarian situation.

    This risk was identified in the June Quarterly Risk Analysis report.

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