Syrian White Helmet civil defense workers tr to extinguish fire following an airstrike by Syrian government forces in southern Idlib, Syria. File picture: Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP
If we thought we’d seen the worst of man’s inhumanity towards man in Syria’s brutal civil war, think again - possibly the worst humanitarian catastrophe is to come.

The final apocalypse is set to take place in the north-western province of Idlib, the last stronghold of rebel and jihadist groups trying to overthrow Syria President Bashar al-Assad. Only when Idlib is taken by government forces will Assad be able to celebrate the opposition’s defeat.

Idlib is destined to be the scene of the bloodiest showdown between the government and the opposition forces in the war, as the government is seeking its destruction. The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra front) leader has said they will fight to the last breath.

It is estimated that of the 3million Idlib residents, there are about 20 000 to 50 000 Jihadist fighters. The tragedy is that many of the 2.95 million civilians (1 million are children) will probably be sacrificed in the final bloody battle.

UN Emergency Relief co-ordinator Mark Lowcock said hundreds of thousands of civilians could die.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main backer, has refused to rule out a full-scale assault on Idlib, in what the Russians and Syrians are probably considering as the “final solution” to the jihadist problem in Syria.

The notion that Idlib would be liquidated became apparent when I spoke to Syrian refugees camped in the Bekaa Valley on the border between Syria and Lebanon, last week.

Some of their friends and family returned home recently, only to have Syrian government forces take the younger men away and deposit them in Idlib as part of the compulsory military service.

Returning refugees are often targeted as traitors or opposition sympathisers. All have to go through clearance that involves interrogation by the security forces. That many returning male refugees are being sent to Idlib is indicative that the regime intends to bombard the area and “clean it” of remaining opposition elements.

Idlib has become a repository of opposition fighters and supporters who were bussed there by the government after Syrian government forces recaptured their areas. When the state told their enemies “surrender or go to Idlib” the inevitable became obvious.

In September last year, a ceasefire deal in Idlib was brokered between Russia and Turkey, which borders Idlib to the north.

Russia has grown impatient with what it perceives as Turkey’s inability to root out opposition fighters, which it took responsibility for, according to the Sochi memorandum. The ceasefire agreement has taken the world’s attention off Idlib while government forces bombed 19 hospitals and medical centres in the past few weeks.

The writing is on the wall for Idlib. The consequences for civilians will be devastating, and those attempting to flee the carnage will be trapped given that the border with Turkey is closed, and Afrin, also in the north, is overcrowded with displaced people.

In September, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it was essential to avoid a full-scale battle in Idlib. The impending humanitarian catastrophe is obvious. But beyond expressions of concern, the international community and the UN Security Council lack the political will to prevent the inevitable, particularly considering Russia is a permanent member.

What is all the more tragic is that at such a precarious time for Syrian refugees, there is growing pressure from their host countries in the region for them to leave. The downturn in the economy of neighbouring Lebanon, with its high unemployment, debt, stretched resources, and the fact that almost half its population are refugees, has turned the tide of public opinion against Syrian refugees.

Two weeks ago, 600 Syrian refugees were forced to leave their camp in the Bekaa Valley of Deir al-Ahmar. Following a fire which broke out near the camp, an altercation ensued between the refugees and the local firefighters who they complained arrived too late. Local men attacked the camp and threatened to burn the refugees in their tents. The municipal authority and nearby town of Baalbeck ordered the refugees to leave for their own safety, but surrounding villages also refused to take them in. Most of the refugees have to sleep in fields without electricity, water, food or tents.

The sentiment of many local people is that the Lebanese economy can no longer cope with the large numbers of refugees. The refugees are allowed to work in only construction, cleaning and agriculture, but in dire economic times such jobs are also sought by the Lebanese. In a country with a population of 4 million, it is believed that around 1.9 million are Syrian refugees, and a further 450000 Palestinian refugees, not to mention refugees and migrants from other states.

In 2015, Lebanese authorities decided to prevent any new Syrian refugees coming into the country, and restrictions on existing refugees receiving residency status have been tightened. It is believed 73% of refugees are without valid residency permits due to an inability to pay the $200 (R3000) annual fee, and to meet the difficult residency conditions.

They are thus at risk of detention.

A decision made by the Lebanese General Security is that any Syrian who enters Lebanon irregularly after April 24 this year will be deported. The government is also enforcing a rule that refugees are not allowed to erect semi-permanent structures in informal camps. The life of a Syrian refugee in such camps is one of dire poverty.

Shelter is a canvas tent held up by narrow wooden sticks, even throughout the winters where temperatures drop below zero degrees and, in some areas, are covered in snow. At times, they run out of money from their minimal UN allowance to buy diesel or wood to heat the tents so they start burning plastic, slippers or anything they can find to survive the cold. NGO workers visiting the camps in winter often refer to the pervasive toxic smell. Many families endured six winters in these conditions, often having rain flooding their tents, or the portable toilets overflowing, causing illness.

For most of them, going home would potentially alleviate a life of untold hardship, although they have no homes to go back to and a decimated economy. But the greatest deterrent is the reality that they are marked as a returnee by the regime, monitored and harassed. The likelihood of detention and disappearance is the most serious threat facing them, which is why most choose to stay. But staying in Lebanon is not a sustainable solution given the growing social resentment and antagonism.

Looking into the eyes of a 40-year-old Syrian woman who has lost everything, has survived six winters in a tent, has accrued a debt of $900 but has no way to pay it back and no job, has a family to feed, and a significantly cut UN allowance that doesn’t even cover the rent owed to the landlord who owns the land the informal camp is set up on, her situation is seemingly hopeless.

But returning to Syria and potentially losing her husband in the process would be more than she could bear.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.