A Syrian refugee camp in Sarmada, near the Turkish border. Photo: Aref Tammawi/AFP via Getty Images

As 2019 comes to a close, a military offensive launched by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib has killed at least 100 civilians and displaced more than 235,000, creating a new nightmare in a region already racked by humanitarian catastrophe.

The big picture: The recent strikes are part of a wider government campaign to reassert authority over Idlib, Syria’s last remaining rebel stronghold. Nearly 3 million civilians are trapped in the northwestern province, boxed in by Turkey's closed border.

Where it stands: As the bombing campaign targets schools and hospitals, civilians have sought shelter in overcrowded, informal settlements that lack basic necessities. Some families with young children are living in the open air, despite heavy rains and cold winter weather.

Between the lines: The Assad regime’s immediate objective appears to be to seize the town of Maaret al-Numan and thereby reopen the strategic highway linking the capital of Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo.

  • Last Thursday President Trump warned the regime and its international benefactors, Russia and Iran, to end the carnage, but stopped short of outlining consequences if they fail to do so.

What to watch: The UN Security Council resolution authorizing cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid to areas of Syria outside regime control is set to expire on January 10, yet two weeks ago China and Russia vetoed its renewal. Ending the flow of aid would cut a critical lifeline.

The bottom line: The situation in Idlib will continue to deteriorate as the civilian population brace for the end of the UN assistance while trapped between the brutal regime offensive and Turkey’s closed border. At this rate, 2020 is shaping up to be the worst humanitarian chapter of the Syrian conflict.

Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.

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