[Main COI reference: Security 2021, 2.2]
The governorate of Idlib is located in northwest Syria. It borders the governorates of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia, as well as Turkey. The governorate is divided into five districts: Idlib, Ariha, Jisr-Ash-Shugur, Harim and Al Mara. In 2019, sources had estimated that the governorate and surrounding areas were home to nearly 3 million people including civilians, IDPs and fighters, and it has been estimated that approximately 70% of the population were IDPs. In a March 2021 report, UNOCHA estimated the population of Idlib governorate to be of 2 691 361. Idlib city is the largest city of the governorate and is also a ‘cross border operation point from Turkey, through the Bab Al Hawa crossing’ and in 2011, it had an estimated population of over 2 million inhabitants.
Background of the conflict
Idlib was among the first provinces to join the 2011 uprising against the Assad government. In 2014, and the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah started to take over Idlib from local rebel groups. Control over Idlib city fluctuated for several years between the GoS forces and anti-GoS armed groups, until in 2015 anti-GoS armed groups managed to gain full control.
Idlib became the refuge for Syrians fleeing the GoS forces, including activists and fighters from areas recaptured by the SAA. Between 2016 and 2018, tens of thousands of opposition fighters and their families from southern Syria and Homs City, were transferred to Idlib after refusing the terms of the so-called reconciliation agreements with GoS.
Following an agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey in May 2017, Idlib governorate became a ‘de-escalation’ area, which stipulated the cessation of hostilities and improved humanitarian access [see also Security 2021, 1.2]. However, GoS forces continued military operations in the area, recapturing half of the de-escalation area by mid-2018. In September 2018, a deal between Russia and Turkey reached at Sochi, created a demilitarised zone in parts of Idlib province. By April 2019, the Sochi agreement collapsed following military escalation by GoS, supported by Russia, further advancing the positions of the GoS forces.
The military offensives of that period, that extended through March 2020, resulted in one of the worst displacement crises throughout the conflict, civilian infrastructure was attacked and destroyed, and the situation was described as ‘the worst humanitarian crisis of Syria’s nine-year war.’
Actors: control and presence
HTS, which is sanctioned by the UN as a terrorist organisation, is the dominant actor in the Idlib area. In the beginning of 2019, the group seized large areas of the governorate following clashes with rival armed groups, and by August 2019 it controlled over 90 % of Idlib governorate, alongside adjacent parts of northern Hama and western Aleppo governorates. HTS and other Islamic groups have imposed in the area rules and codes of conduct that violate many human rights. Courts that have been established by the HTS have inflicted harsh penalties including executions.
The presence of armed groups composed of foreign fighters, such as Khattab Al-Shishani Brigade and Katiba al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which was under the authority of HTS, was also reported in the governorate. HTS have cracked down on the Hurras al-Din (HAD) armed group, which was perceived as a threat to their control.
A number of other anti-GoS armed groups also operate in the Idlib area (e.g. NLF, TIP, Ansar al-Tawhid). They are predominantly Islamist groups, who have an ambiguous or symbiotic relationship with HTS. Some of them are backed by Turkey, such as the NLF, an alliance of opposition-armed groups which merged with the SNA in October 2019.
Deployments of the SAA in Idlib governorate in 2019 and the first months of 2020 included predominantly units of the Republican Guard, followed by those of the 3rd Corps and the 5th Corps and for that period there were also reports of the participation of the 4th Corps, the 25th Division (Tiger Forces), the Palestinian militia Liwa al-Quds, and the NDF. In March 2021 it was reported that GoS and pro-GoS armed units were present in Ma'arrat al-Nu'man and in southern Idlib.
As of March 2021, HTS and other anti-GoS armed groups controlled the north-western part of Idlib governorate, while the GoS was in control of the areas in the southern part of the governorate, including the M5 highway.
Turkey has 12 military observation points around the Idlib de-escalation zone which were set up after the 2018 deal. By mid-February 2020, Turkey was reported to have massed 30 000 troops and armour on the Syrian border and to have sent 5 000 troops to Idlib. Additionally, it has set up military posts in the vicinity of Idlib city. At the end of February 2020, following the GoS operations, Turkey launched the operation Spring Shield, which halted the GoS advance. While it had been reported that Turkey have withdrawn from military posts in Idlib, by 2021 it was reported that Turkey was again building up troops in the area.
ISIL was reported to have a latent presence in Idlib. In 2021, the Idlib de-escalation area continued to be a ‘limited safe haven’, where ISIL leaders and fighters resided, although ‘HTS regularly arrests ISIL fighters’.
It is reported that military operations of the GoS in Idlib have been reinforced by Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces.
Nature of violence and examples of incidents
In the beginning of 2020, several of the Turkish military observation points came under fire from GoS forces or were surrounded, resulting in deaths and prompting Turkish retaliatory attacks. In the same year, the GoS forces and their allies continued their offensive to retake Idlib governorate from various anti-GoS armed groups, capturing the strategic towns of Maaret al-Numan and Saraqeb, and subsequently advancing in eastern Idlib. The offensive resulted in direct fighting between GoS forces and Turkish forces, triggering Turkey to launch the ‘Operation Spring Shield’ in order to stop the GoS offensive in Idlib governorate. During that period up to March 2020, the security situation in Idlib governorate gravely deteriorated. In January 2020, intensive airstrikes were conducted across the governorate, in which barrel bombs were used and hit civilian locations - such as markets and a mosque - in which civilians were killed and injured. The UN reported that the GoS and pro-government aerial bombardment across the north-west in February 2020 was at some of the highest levels since the start of the conflict. The targets of airstrikes included amongst other schools, markets, and medical facilities. According to multiple sources, the systematic attacks against civilian infrastructure by the GoS and Russian forces resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.
On 6 March 2020, a ceasefire in the Idlib area took effect, which was brokered by Russia and Turkey, and joint Russian and Turkish patrols were agreed to be carried along a security corridor established south of the M4 highway. The March 2020 ceasefire resulted in a lull in airstrikes and a reduction in the shelling in Idlib. However, in 2020, Idlib was the second worst impacted governorate by explosive violence, with 998 civilian casualties recorded. IED incidents continued to occur and during the second half of 2020 there were reported intensified shelling and airstrikes in Idlib city, in rural areas to the west of the town, along the M5 highway and south of the M4 highway, which continued in 2021. The indiscriminate attacks affecting civilians continued in 2021 and specifically in March 2021 there were reported airstrikes and shelling of frontlines and of inhabited areas such as towns and villages.
HTS clashed with rival armed groups, including HAD in mid-2020 managing to reassert its dominance in the area. Confrontations between the armed groups occasionally resulted in civilians being killed in the crossfire in July 2020.
Unexploded cluster ammunition or other ordnances in Idlib were also reported to cause a threat to civilians living in the area, especially to children who play with or collect scrap metal or objects.
ACLED recorded 3 982 security incidents (average of 61 security incidents per week) in Idlib governorate in the period from 1 January 2020 to 31 March 2021, of which 3 213 were coded as ‘explosions/remote violence’, 641 as ‘battles’, and 128 as incidents of ‘violence against civilians’. The highest number of security incidents were recorded between January and March 2020, after which the level of security incidents remained largely stable throughout the reporting period.
During 2020 and the first months of 2021, security incidents occurred in all districts of Idlib governorate, with the largest overall number being recorded in the districts of Al Ma’ra, Idlib and Ariha.
Civilian fatalities: data
VDC recorded 419 civilian fatalities in 2020 and 37 civilian fatalities in the first three months of 2021. SNHR recorded 471 civilian fatalities in 2020 and 61 civilian fatalities in the first three months of 2021. For the full reporting period, this represented 456 civilian fatalities in total or approximately 17 civilian fatalities per 100 000 inhabitants according to VDC data; and 532 civilian fatalities in total or approximately 20 civilian fatalities per 100 000 inhabitants according to SNHR.
For the year 2020, UNOCHA reported 1 070 000 IDP movements from Idlib governorate, including 821 000 IDP movements within the governorate. The GoS military offensive in Idlib between December 2019 and March 2020 caused nearly 960 000 displacements to northern Idlib and Aleppo, of which most were reported to be displaced for a second or third time. For the period after the ceasefire that followed the Idlib offensive (March to December 2020), over 600 000 displacements were recorded in Idlib and Aleppo governorates alone.
In the first three months of 2021, UNOCHA reported 54 300 displacements from Idlib governorate, including 35 900 within the governorate. As of March 2021, IOM assessed that around 220 000 persons living in north-west Syria were at ‘immediate risk of displacement’.
In 2020, 235 000 IDP return movements to the governorate were recorded, including 178 000 within the governorate itself. In the first three months of 2021, UNOCHA reported 14 400 IDP return movements to Idlib governorate, the majority being returns within the governorate.
Further impact on civilians
Throughout the governorate of Idlib, massive damage has been documented in civilian infrastructure and housing. In the town of Idlib, hundreds of buildings have been severely damaged or destroyed, while a significant number of agricultural lands in the southern areas have been burned. It has been recorded that the town of Maarat al-Nu`man has suffered significant damage and most of the town’s residential buildings and key infrastructure showed ‘heavy damage’. Many buildings were likely destroyed by heavy machinery and explosives. It has been estimated that 29.6 % of the population of Idlib governorate was living in damaged buildings and an additional 17.2 % in self-settled camps. More than half of Idlib’s schools have been destroyed, damaged or out of order due to insecurity, whilst an additional 74 schools have been used as shelters. Healthcare infrastructure is regularly damaged or destroyed in airstrikes or shelling.
Looking at the indicators, it can be concluded that the degree of indiscriminate violence in Idlib governorate reaches such a high level, that substantial grounds are shown for believing that a civilian, returned to the governorate, would, solely on account of their presence on its territory, face a real risk of being subject to the serious threat referred to in Article 15(c) QD.