Idlib assault could be worst humanitarian crisis of seven-year Syrian civil war

  • By ITV News correspondent John Ray, on the Turkey-Syria border

Is this the final act of Syria’s long and brutal war?

If so, a conflict that has claimed half a million lives and forced half the population their homes, might even have saved its worst until last.

We’re on the Turkish border, just across from Idlib province, the final rebel-held corner of a ruined land.

Backed by Russian airstrikes, bolstered by Iranian military know-how, the Syrian Army is gathering.

Credit: ITV News

Rebels are digging in. Literally. ‘’We will not give up an inch,’’ one fighter told ITV News as he dug a defensive ditch he knows might also turn out to be his grave.

The UN warns of a looming humanitarian crisis to dwarf anything seen in seven years of horror, the Turks of a ‘’lake of blood’’ if an full scale assault goes ahead.

I first came to Idlib seven years ago, to witness what was then still a largely peaceful uprising.

Protestors demanded democracy and freedom. The regime responded with bullets.

Rebel fighters dig in ahead of the final Syrian regime assault

Then, we walked over the border and met two nervous young men who took us to the town of Jisr al-Shugur. From a distance we saw army tanks in the streets.

The army was banished and these days the town is held by Al-Nusra, one of several jihadist groups here with origins in Al Qaeda.

The Assad regime has a score to settle with them, among tens of thousands of rebel fighters, including many foreigners and several Britons.

Thousands of civilians are crammed into tents along the border wall with Turkey Credit: ITV News

But there are more babies than terrorists in Idlib, as the British Ambassador to the UN said last week.

And more three million people, with nowhere to run to and few places to hide.

The province has been a dumping group for rebels who’ve abandoned previous battlefields and for civilians who for years have fled the fighting.

Now they are trapped between the imminent advance of the Syrian Army, and the wall that marks the Turkish border.

Only a lucky few have permission to cross.

Among them, we met 11 year old Sobhi, though lucky is not perhaps the best way to describe a boy who has been paralysed by a missile strike and whose skin bears the appalling scars of shrapnel wounds.

Sobhi was paralysed by a missile strike Credit: ITV News

I ask his father whether those they’d left behind in Idlib were scarred.

‘’Too scared to sleep,’’ he told me. ‘’The fighter planes are over-head, day and night.’’

Maamoun’s father and other family members are stuck in Idlib. He implores the world to act.

‘’They have to stop this attack. It would be a crime against Syrians and all humanity because innocent children, innocent people, would die, for nothing.’’

Those young men we met in Idlib all those life-time ago where saying very much the same, and little good did it do.

Will Assad and his allies show restraint at the last? From the start, that has not been their way. This last chapter might be the bloodiest yet.