By Airi Price
Civil war has raged in Syria since 2011. Inspired by a series of Arab Spring protests in the MENA region, distressed Syrians began demanding accountability by their government for violations in democracy. Tensions came to a head in March of 2011, when street demonstrations swiftly escalated into armed insurrection.
Through the ensuing conflict, the clear line between rebel militias and the forces of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, was skewed in all directions as extremist groups exploited Syria’s political volatility for territorial control.
Though insurgent forces received substantial support from the international community, the now 11-year-long struggle has seen extremist groups seize over 70% of Syrian land. Under various motives, prominent foreign actors have recurrently intervened in the conflict. Notably, Russia, China, and Iran have backed Assad’s regime, while the US and Turkey has provided support to rebel forces.
"Its closure has left nearly 300,000 residents with no access to clean water.
Opposing political interests of such actors remain a hindrance to multilateral efforts in ending the war. In fact, CBS News reports that Russia and China have vetoed 16 resolutions put forth by the UN Security Council. Without adequate de-escalation measures, the hostility between opposing forces continue to intensify – with terrified communities trapped in the crosshairs.
In recent years, foreign military and economic backing has aided Assad’s government in recovering majority of the land lost to extremist groups. However, the intense struggle over territory has led both Assad and extremist groups to shift their focus to northern Syria, where rebels maintain control of the land. The Idlib province, in particular, has been targeted due to its unstable leadership.
Located in northwestern Syria, Idlib has been overtaken by various opposition groups since 2015. Currently, an extremist group, known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, has the strongest control over the province. Two other extremist groups (Hurras al-Din and the Turkistan Islamic Party), as well as one rebel group (the National Front for Liberation), are also vying for power.
With an estimated population of three million adults and one million children, the Daily Sabah reports that two-thirds of Idlib residents are IDPs. Should a full-blown battle over Idlib ensue, the UN fears that it will result in a “bloodbath” and inflate the number of displacements and fatalities.
Unfortunately, such foreseen conditions aren’t too far removed from the current situation. In recent years, Assad’s forces have facilitated consistent air strikes and ground attacks on civilian infrastructure in Idlib. In July of 2019, eight water facilities came under attack, with some left in unfunctional conditions.
Three of such facilities were operated by UNICEF, further deteriorating humanitarian capacity in the province. UNICEF estimates that the attack left 250,000 residents in Southern Idlib deprived of clean water. In December of 2020, a similar targeting of infrastructure left another one million Idlib residents displaced from their homes. BBC reports that this is the single largest displacement of the entire war thus far. Still, the assaults remain obstinate as Assad receives military assistance from Russia.
On 2 January 2021, Russian jets launched an airstrike on the Arshani Water Station – Idlib’s primary source of clean water. As the Daily Sabah explains, the Idlib Water Works Director, Cemel Diyben, marked the Arshani Water Station as inoperable following the bombings. Its closure has left roughly 300,000 residents with no access to clean water.
They are now forced to pay for sterile water – often with money they don’t have, as most of the affected are IDPs with pre-existing financial burdens associated with resettlement and disrupted income. Given this, almost 75% of Idlib’s population requires humanitarian aid to meet basic needs, per the Daily Sabah.
Despite global acknowledgement of grave conditions in Syria, resources for humanitarian efforts remain scarce. According to The National, the lack of funding has forced Doctors Without Borders and other regional organizations to scale back on fresh water operations in Idlib. Instead of costly sterile water, many residents have resorted to drinking contaminated water that is partially treated with lime.
The state of climate change in Syria has largely been obscured by the civil war. Yet, environmental stressors have rapidly exacerbated the public health emergencies that violence has bred. The absence of key water stations is compounded with chronic drought – the worst that Syria has experienced in 70 years, per Reliefweb.
As a result, a major source of water for Idlib, the Duwaisat Dam Reservoir, was left completely dry by November of 2021. Making matters worse, Turkish dam construction upstream of the Euphrates River has further reduced the amount of water supplied to IDP camps in Idlib.
In a cruelly ironic turn of events, Islamic Relief reported a period of unusually heavy rainfall in northern Syria, starting from 26 December 2021. Subsequent flash floods forced many Idlib residents out of homes and IDP camps.
Moreover, remaining pockets of freshwater throughout the province were left heavily polluted with runoff. The National notes that water contaminants include rubbish, corrosive metal, chemicals, oil, bacteria, and viruses. There are significant health threats associated with drinking such toxic water – most of which can prove fatal in children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.
The previous destruction of water facilities in Idlib leave little means to safely purify what limited water is left in the province. Hopes of a prompt response to the water shortage are rapidly fading, as rebel and extremist groups in control of Idlib remain preoccupied with Assad’s advancements on the territory. External aid is also restricted, with humanitarian organizations citing staff safety and funding as major concerns to continuing operations.
In efforts to intimidate and weaken the last rebel stronghold, the Assad regime has explicitly targeted its most vulnerable facet – civilians. Large foreign involvement, and the resulting political impasse, has overshadowed the growing humanitarian crisis at the center of the conflict. As it currently stands, the entire population of Idlib is on the brink of collapse and the magnitude of civilian casualty is incomprehensible. Idlib residents have now been deprived of every opportunity for survival, and immediate aid is desperately needed.