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Wednesday 4 March 2020

Questions and answers on the war in Syria and the crisis in Idlib

An Assad regime helicopter in flames over Idlib after being shot by Turkish-backed forces, 11 February 2020. Photo by Ghaith Alsayed, AP.

The Syrian war has lasted nine years, and can be hard for many to understand.

We have written the following guide to help understand the war, and the current escalation in Idlib province. If you find it useful, please share on Twitter and on Facebook.

If you would like to write to your MP about any of these points, you can email them via writetothem.com.

• Why is there still a war in Syria?
Nine years after the first demonstrations of 2011, the Assad regime continues to pursue a forcible displacement strategy against a population that rejects its rule, deliberately bombing civilians to force them to flee.

• What caused the crisis in Idlib?
The Assad regime and its ally Russia broke a demilitarised zone agreement with Turkey, attacked population centres, and advanced into Idlib province, forcing a million people to flee to the Turkish border.

Two thirds of Idlib’s population are there because they were forcibly displaced from other parts of Syria.

• Why can’t people in Idlib escape into Turkey?
Refugees in Idlib are trapped across the border from Turkey by the border wall, built with EU financial investment to stop refugees from entering Turkey as part of the deal to keep refugees from Europe’s borders. They are unable to find safety from air attacks and are living in hazardous conditions. Some people trying to cross the border have been shot and even killed.

• What can be done about refugees in Greece and Turkey?
The UK is complicit in the crisis facing refugees in Greece and in Turkey due to past failure to protect civilians inside Syria and its role in developing hostile EU refugee policies. The UK should urgently resettle significant numbers of vulnerable refugees from both Turkey and Greece.

• What are Turkish forces doing in Idlib?
Turkish forces have been striking Assad regime military targets to force them to withdraw to a boundary previously agreed under the 2018 Sochi deal, a line delineated by Turkish observation posts.


On 5 March 2020, Turkey’s President Erdogan met Russia’s President Putin, and they agreed a ceasefire. The terms failed to achieve an Assad regime withdrawal to the 2018 Sochi line. As a result, over one million people recently displaced in Idlib will be unable to return home, as it is unsafe for them to return to towns now held by the Assad regime where they would risk abuse, forced conscription, detention, torture, and death.

See map below.

• Would an Assad victory allow refugees to return home?
No, in the case of an Assad victory, most of the six million refugees outside Syria would not feel safe to return, and millions more would try to flee Syria.

Nine out of every ten civilians who have been confirmed killed in the Syrian conflict were killed by the Assad regime and its Russian allies, according to human rights monitors. (See chart below.) As well as civilians killed by bombing and shooting, tens of thousands of civilians have been imprisoned, tortured, raped, and murdered by Assad regime security branches.

• What is the most urgent need for people in Syria?
The most urgent need is for civilian protection, firstly in Idlib, and also across the rest of Syria.

• Is humanitarian aid the best response?
Humanitarian aid is vital, but can’t stop attacks on civilians or stop forced displacement.

• Can the UK and allies stop Assad attacking civilians?
The UK could consider how best to support NATO ally Turkey in order to reduce the threat to civilians from Assad military forces, for example by directly supporting Turkish efforts to impose a no-fly zone against Assad regime bombers.

Turkish forces are currently the only UK ally on the ground in Idlib with the capacity to protect civilians from Assad regime military attacks.

The Assad regime sees the conquest of Idlib and displacement of its population as essential to its own future, and therefore diplomacy without the backing of force will fail. Assad has broken every previous agreement, and no enduring ceasefire can be established without enforcement.

• What about the Turkish government’s human rights abuses?
The Turkish government has one of the worst records on imprisoning journalists. Turkish action in the Afrin region of Syria led to the displacement of thousands of Kurdish residents. Turkish-backed forces in northern Syria have been filmed murdering unarmed prisoners.

However, the UK and its other allies are themselves implicated in human rights abuses that have caused the deaths of thousands of Syrian civilians, including refugees drowned in the Mediterranean due to hostile EU policies, civilians besieged and killed in the Coalition’s Raqqa offensive, and civilians starved in Rukban camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border.

The UK and its allies all need to work constructively to drastically improve the human rights performance of all parties, and to protect civilians inside Syria and protect refugees fleeing Syria.

• What about Russia?
The UK could introduce targeted sanctions against those Russian individuals who have been identified as having command responsibility for targeting hospitals and civilians.

While Assad regime officers and ministers have been sanctioned, and some Russian individuals have been sanctioned in connection with Russian aggression in Ukraine, no sanctions have been imposed on Russian individuals for their role in crimes in Syria.

• Can the UK and allies act when the Security Council is divided?
The Security Council has not authorised action to enforce a ceasefire or end the conflict. However Security Council Resolution 2139 (2014) demanded “that all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment…”

The UK has previously asserted that use of force in a humanitarian intervention is permitted on an exceptional basis even without Security Council endorsement.

• What else can MPs do?
There is a wide lack of understanding of what is happening in Idlib, and the reality of people’s lives there. Fact-finding missions to Idlib by MPs could help bridge the gap in understanding. There have been recent visits to Idlib both by senior UN staff and by senior US representatives.

• What else should the UK Government do?
To aid understanding, the UK Government should publish assessments of the probable consequences of failing to act to protect civilians in Idlib, both immediate humanitarian impacts and the wider political, economic, and military consequences for the region, Europe, and the UK.

• What about the future?
The UK has up to now followed a policy of containment on Syria, but containment has failed in every year of the conflict, in terms of refugee outflows, widening security threats, and widening political and economic impacts beyond Syria. The UK urgently needs a new comprehensive strategy to guide Syria policy.

Beyond the immediate need for civilian protection, lack of accountability is the central cause of the conflict. A peaceful secure future demands that individuals, armed groups, and governments can be held accountable, within Syria as well as internationally. The UK should give much greater support to accountability mechanisms, including inside Syria’s borders where possible.

Chart: Nine out of every ten civilians who have been confirmed killed in the Syrian conflict were killed by the Assad regime and its Russian allies, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.