Last update: February 2023
Idlib is located in north-west Syria, bordering Türkiye to the north, Hama governorate to the south, Aleppo governorate to the east, and Latakia governorate to the west. The governorate is divided into five districts: Idlib, Ariha, Jisr-Ash-Shugur, Harim and Al Mara. Idlib city is the capital of the governorate, is located in the strategic road between Aleppo and Damascus governorates and is also a ‘cross border operation point from Türkiye, through the Bab Al Hawa crossing’. In 2011, Idlib city population amounted to over two million inhabitants. As of February 2022 report, UNOCHA estimated the population of Idlib governorate to be of 2 858 020 inhabitants. According to UNOCHA, the total population of Idlib area is 3.16 million of whom 2.01 million are IDPs.
Background of the conflict
Idlib was among the first governorates to join the 2011 uprising against the Assad government. Control over Idlib city fluctuated for several years between GoS forces and anti-GoS armed groups, until anti-GoS armed groups managed to gain full control in 2015.
Idlib became the refuge for Syrians fleeing from 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 Türkiye in May 2017 which stipulated the cessation of hostilities and improved humanitarian access, Idlib governorate became a ‘de-escalation’ area. However, GoS forces continued military operations in the area, and recaptured half of the de-escalation area by mid-2018. In September 2018, a deal between Russia and Türkiye created a demilitarised zone in parts of Idlib governorate. By April 2019, the so-called Sochi agreement collapsed following military escalation by GoS, supported by Russia, further advancing the positions of the GoS forces. The military offensives that extended through March 2020 resulted in one of the worst displacement crises throughout the conflict [Security 2021, 2.1.2, p. 65]. After the Turkish military deployment and/or incursion into areas controlled by anti-GoS armed groups in Idlib governorate (Operation Spring Shield) in early March 2020, a ceasefire was mediated by Russia and Türkiye between GoS and anti-GoS armed groups. The major frontlines have since then remained ‘stagnant’.
Actors: control and presence
Idlib governorate is divided into areas controlled by the GoS and areas controlled by anti-GoS armed groups. The GoS controls the southern and eastern parts of Idlib governorate, including the Damascus-Aleppo highway (M5) and its immediate surroundings. GoS’s allies Russia and Iran as well as Lebanese ally Hezbollah also have presence in GoS-controlled parts of the governorate.
Anti-GoS armed groups control the western and northern parts of the governorate, which cover all the areas north and immediately south of M4 highway. HTS, described as the dominant and military superior armed group in the governorate, controls those parts of Idlib governorate under the control of anti-GoS armed groups and has almost complete control over the wider Idlib de-escalation area. The SNA has presence in Idlib governorate and a headquarters in Idlib city. The SNA-affiliated National Liberation Front (NLF) is fighting alongside HTS in the frontlines. Turkish forces have been present in Idlib since 2017 and were, during the reporting period, reinforced in order to deter the potential GoS advancement.
Other anti-GoS armed groups were present in Idlib governorate and the wider Idlib de-escalation area. HTS’s rival, al-Qaida-affiliated jihadist group Hurras al-Din merely has ‘a residual presence’ due to the crackdown by HTS and airstrikes by the US-led Coalition. Other jihadist groups consisting mainly of foreign fighters, such as Jund al-Sham and Jund Allah, and Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, an alleged HTS splinter group, were also present. Most attempts by ISIL to establish an active network in the governorate were quelled by HTS. However, the de-escalation zone provides a limited safe haven and continues to be a strategic location for ISIL.
Nature of violence and examples of incidents
During the second quarter of 2021, persistent armed clashes and shelling between GoS and anti-GoS armed groups along the frontlines were reported. Following escalation of hostilities in June 2021, more than 53 civilian deaths in non-government-held parts were recorded.
From July to December 2021, there was a notable increase in airstrikes and shelling conducted by GoS and allies in Idlib governorate mainly targeting the area south of the M4 (particularly Jabal al-Zawiyah). Both military sites and civilian infrastructure were targeted. Russian forces regularly hit HTS targets inside northern Idlib and GoS forces conducted regular attacks against HTS elements along the M4. In turn, HTS conducted sporadic attacks targeting both joint Russian-Turkish patrols and Turkish forces. During the same period, GoS forces conducted attacks against residential areas. These attacks included indiscriminate attacks on densely populated civilian areas, targeting both Idlib city and the town of Ariha. Other places with civilian presence, including hospitals, markets, schools, IDP settlements and farms were also struck [Security 2022, 1.5.4, pp. 47-49]. Civilians were reportedly killed and injured, including 64 children killed, as a result of hostilities in and around the Idlib de-escalation area.
Since December 2021, hostilities in north-western Syria continued in a similar manner. Airstrikes, shelling and armed clashes were reported along the frontlines between GoS and anti-GoS armed groups and some incidents were described as ‘attacks on the civilian population’. In April 2022, intense shelling against military and civilian targets resumed, and the tempo of airstrikes increased. In July 2022, anti-GoS groups launched a campaign in response to increased land and air attacks by GoS and Russian forces, and intensified attacks on GoS positions along southern and eastern frontlines as well as shelling on GoS-controlled areas in eastern and southern rural Idlib. [Security 2022, 1.5.4, p. 48]
HTS cracked down on several anti-GoS armed groups, including Jund al-Sham and Jund Allah, in northern Idlib during the reference period. Although at least one of these crackdowns took place in the context of civil discontent against HTS rule, no civilian casualties were reported.
Airstrikes by Russian and US forces against jihadist targets in Idlib governorate that led to (collateral) civilian casualties in end 2021 were reported. In February 2022, ten civilians were reportedly killed in a US-attack against ISIL leader Abdullah Qardash in Atmeh town.
The use of explosive weapons by GoS caused a high number of civilian casualties.
Idlib recorded the second largest number of security incidents out of all governorates. ACLED recorded 2 253 security incidents (average of 32.4 security incidents per week) in Idlib governorate in the period from 1 April 2021 to 31 July 2022. The majority of the reported incidents were coded as ‘explosions/remote violence’ (1 943), while 197 incidents were coded as ‘battles’ and 113 as incidents of ‘violence against civilians’. In the period 1 August – 31 October 2022, 681 security incidents were recorded in Idlib representing an average of 54 security incidents per week.
Security incidents occurred in all districts during the reference period, with the largest overall number being recorded in the district of Ariha, followed by Al Ma’ra and Idlib.
Civilian fatalities: data
The SNHR recorded 195 civilian fatalities in Idlib in the nine months between April and December 2021. In January – October 2022, the SNHR recorded 120 civilian fatalities. This represented four civilian fatalities per 100 000 inhabitants for the first ten months of 2022.
As of February 2022, the number of IDPs in Idlib governorate was stated to be 1 868 494.
UNOCHA recorded approximately 223 000 IDP movements from Idlib governorate, of which, approximately 152 000 occurred within the governorate. A significant number of displacements from Idlib took place to Aleppo governorate (69 200). In 2021, new displacements were mostly recorded around the frontline areas. Between January and June 2022, IDP movements tracked by UNOCHA were concentrated mainly in north-west Syria, with 77-85 % of them taking place between the governorates of Aleppo and Idlib. In the first six months of 2022, UNOCHA registered 54 000 IDP movements from Idlib governorate, the majority being within the governorate.
In 2021, approximately 42 000 IDP return movements were recorded to Idlib governorate, most of which being within the governorate. In the first six months of 2022, 19 400 IDP return movements were registered by UNOCHA, most of which being within the governorate.
Further impact on civilians
In 2021, several attacks on healthcare facilities were reported in Idlib governorate and other areas controlled by anti-GoS armed groups. In many cases hospitals were either completely or partially destroyed. An airstrike on 2 January 2022 hit the Arshani water pumping station, on which 225 000 residents of Idlib city depend as their water source. Schools in Idlib governorate were also damaged as the result of the ongoing conflict during the reporting period.
The areas in north-west Syria, including Idlib de-escalation area and adjoining GoS-controlled areas, are extensively contaminated by explosive ordnances with over 400 communities affected. Fields, villages, roadsides and areas around hospitals and schools are contaminated by unexploded ordnances, such as landmines and IEDs. The large-scale displacement affecting the governorate has ‘sharply increased’ the size of the economically disenfranchised population living in the proximity of the contaminated areas. Landmines claimed 144 lives in the governorate between March 2011 and March 2021.
Looking at the indicators, it can be concluded that in the governorate of Idlib, indiscriminate violence 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.