As a government assault on Syria’s rebel-held northwest heads into its fourth month, the violence – and mounting attacks on civilians and hospitals, schools, and homes — has increasingly centred on two crucial highways, and the towns dotted along them.
It is on areas around the M5, which once ran from Deraa to Aleppo, and around the M4, connecting Latakia to Aleppo – that Syrian and Russian planes have focused their bombing campaign, striking residential neighbourhoods, vital medical facilities, and markets.
By the UN’s count, more than 450 civilians have been killed and 440,000 people forced to flee their homes since the late April breakdown of an already shaky ceasefire in Idlib and rebel-held parts of nearby provinces.
In a briefing to the Security Council on Tuesday, UN relief chief Mark Lowcock described it as more than 90 days of “carnage” and said: "What you see is a level of destruction consistent with a bombing campaign aimed at a scorched earth policy.”
The airstrikes reached a deadly peak last week, when warplanes struck several highway towns on 22 July, including a crowded public market in the southern Idlib city of Ma’arat al-Nu’man, killing at least 39 in the market and an estimated 60 total that day.
50-year-old Marwan, who requested a pseudonym to protect his identity, was setting up his ice cream truck in the market last Monday morning when the bombs hit.
Marwan, who was forced to evacuate the southern city of Deraa for Idlib when pro-government forces took the area from rebels last July, said he was standing just over a dozen metres from the initial bomb blast, and fell to the ground when it struck the crowded street.
Photos shared online after the attack showed piles of concrete rubble and a massive crater in the middle of what was a main road just moments before.
“There was dust everywhere; I couldn’t see in front of me,” Marwan said by phone.
He got up from the ground and fled, afraid of a second airstrike. The planes returned later.
“The market had been full of people,” Marwan said. “Everyone was coming outside to do their shopping.”
The bombing has also devastated healthcare facilities. Physicians for Human Rights has recorded some 46 attacks on hospitals and medical clinics in the embattled Idlib pocket so far since April, including those had shared their coordinates with the UN and the warring parties as part of a mechanism meant to prevent their targeting.
Lowcock said Tuesday, not for the first time, that the system “is not proving effective in helping to protect those who utilise [it]”.
Highways through Idlib
In the early days of the fighting, rebel groups explicitly accused pro-government forces of trying to seize the M4 and M5 using airstrikes.
Until the April breakdown, the relative calm had been kept by a September deal, crafted by Turkey and Russia, that required hardline rebels to withdraw from a “buffer zone” that includes the countryside lining the highways.
The agreement covered Idlib as well as rebel-held parts of neighbouring Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia provinces. It was meant to stave off a widely anticipated assault by pro-government forces on the northwestern rebel stronghold, and an ensuing humanitarian catastrophe.
Hardline Islamist rebel group Tahrir al-Sham has not withdrawn from the “buffer zone”, which is one of the Syrian government’s rationales for the current campaign.
But the ultimate goal of the assault is still not apparent. Any effort to retake the countryside along the two highways has mostly stalled as back-and-forth ground skirmishes between the sides yield few advances, although last week pro-government forces seized control of some territory near Ma’arat al-Nu’man after the market bombing.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Washington, DC-based research fellow with the Forum for Regional Thinking, said capturing the highways would be a major strategic victory for President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
“Reopening of these roads will allow the regime to freely move goods and people between Hama and the rest of regime-controlled Syria to Latakia and to Aleppo,” said Tsurkov. Renewed control of the highways could also open trade routes to Turkey in the future, she added.
Civilians and hospitals
Dotting much of Idlib province are dozens of hospitals, bakeries, and water stations now bombed out of service or reduced to rubble. “These are civilian objects,” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a 26 July statement. “It seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident.”
Hospitals, too, lie along the roads – as do the routes to get to them.
Two weeks ago, Qusai al-Khateeb, an opposition-aligned citizen journalist in rural Idlib, made the difficult choice to take his two-year-old son, Salah al-Din, to see a doctor.
Salah al-Din’s temperature was rising, he was having trouble breathing, and the medicine al-Khateeb had at home did not help.
“Wherever there are people gathered, they bomb.”
Al-Khateeb said taking his son to see a doctor meant a dangerous drive, as there are no more operational hospitals in the area surrounding his village, which is not far from Ma’arat al-Nu’man.
He waited until the evening call to prayer marked sunset and drove 35 kilometres north towards the village of Ariha. They travelled under the cover of darkness to avoid detection from the skies, avoiding the M4 and M5 highways. “The warplanes target them,” he told The New Humanitarian by phone.
A doctor was waiting in Ariha for al-Khateeb and his son, who turned out to have a serious bacterial infection in his abdomen. “Thank God there was medicine available,” al-Khateeb said. His son’s condition is improving steadily, but he was lucky.
The Syrian government has told the Security Council that 119 hospitals have been taken over by terrorist groups so could no longer be considered civilian targets, and that there was no ambulance network left in Idlib. Lowcock hit back against both of these assertions in his remarks on Tuesday.
General surgeon Dr. Wassel Aljork worked at a hospital near Ma’arat al-Nu’man until it was bombed out of service earlier this month.
Speaking by phone, he told TNH he hadn’t been able to retrieve any equipment from the building, and now treats who he can from a rudimentary clinic he runs from his home. His medical supplies, he said, are “very basic”. But there are few other options for injured and sick residents amid a healthcare system that has been seriously damaged by the recent onslaught.
“Wherever there are people gathered, they bomb,” said Marwan, whose ice cream truck and sole source of income was damaged in last week’s market attack in Ma’arat al-Nu’man. “Hospitals, markets, everything. We don’t have any safety except in God.”
(TOP PHOTO: The aftermath of a reported airstrike on the village of Ariha, in the south of Syria's Idlib province, 28 July 2019.)