An anticipated Syrian government offensive against rebels in Idlib province could displace more than 700,000 people, more than were uprooted in a recent battle in south-west Syria, a UN-led group of health agencies said.
Many of Syria’s battles ended with agreements for fighters and families to depart for Idlib governorate, where an influx of displaced people has roughly doubled the population to around 2.5 million.
The United Nations said the province has become a “dumping ground” for evacuees.
The monthly Health Cluster Bulletin, published by health-focused aid agencies led by the World Health Organisation, said aid workers were bracing for the Idlib battle.
“Increased hostilities are expected in north west in the coming period to result in displacements of 250,000 to over 700,000 people in Idlib and surrounding areas,” the report said.
“This will cause increased need for humanitarian assistance to the new vulnerable and host communities, especially emergency health services.”
Between mid-June and the end of July, 184,000 people were displaced by a battle in the south and subsequent agreements to end the fighting there. Among the displaced, more than 10,000 went to Idlib and northern Aleppo governorate, the report said.
The UN repeatedly warned about the dangers of an attack on Idlib. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said in a Russian media interview last month Idlib governorate would be a priority for his forces.
UN regional humanitarian co-ordinator Panos Moumtzis said the governorate’s entire population of 2.5 million could be displaced and move toward the Turkish border if there was a major battle.
Such a battle would be much more complicated and brutal than anything seen so far in the seven-year war, he said.
The health cluster report included a map showing a breakdown of population in southern and eastern parts of the governorate, suggesting the displacement scenario was based on an attack by government forces from south and east.
The map showed population estimates in four zones from the frontline to the Latakia-Aleppo highway and the Hama-Aleppo highway, with 993,000 people in them.