Idlib, Syria – Nearly three million Syrians living in the northwestern province of Idlib are bracing for a possible government assault, which neighbouring Turkey has warned would result in a large-scale humanitarian disaster.
Idlib is the last remaining opposition stronghold in the country. It is home to about three million people, half of whom are internally displaced.
If the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad press ahead with an offensive, observers say as many as 2.5 million Syrians could try to flee to the shuttered Turkish border, creating a new refugee crisis.
On Friday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned against the possible assault, while offering to work with Syria’s ally, Russia, to pursue a ceasefire in the area and prevent a mass exodus.
Many in Idlib are already preparing themselves for the worst case scenario.
“We won’t leave our nation alone again, we will defend our people until the last breath,” Ahmad Ghajar, an Idlib resident, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Muhammad al-Hajj Marai, owner of a candy shop, said the possible Syrian government assault “does no difference”.
“Why should I be scared? Assad has already been killing us for seven years – our families, brothers, and sisters, even the children.”
Since the conflict, Idlib has provided a refuge for many Syrians fleeing other parts of the country, including after government offensives targeting other rebel-held parts of the country.
The so-called Syrian Salvation Government is a civil authority formed in Idlib last year, and is backed by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant rebel group in the province.
“It will be a disaster and a catastrophe if such an attack happens, because even rich and able governments can’t evacuate three or four million people quickly in such difficult conditions that we are living in,” said Jamal Shahoud, deputy prime minister of the Syrian Salvation Government.
Opposition groups in Idlib are attempting to unify into a “National Army”, with Turkey’s help, to try and overcome any divisions to fight the Syrian government. Some 70,000 fighters have pledged to fight against Assad’s forces.
But HTS has not offered its support yet.
Syrian forces have already dropped leaflets over Idlib, calling for rebel groups to surrender.
For now, those living in Syria’s last opposition stronghold can only wait and see what happens next.