With nowhere to run, Idlib residents reach for life, but prepare to fight

Ugur Can/DHA/AP
Family members ride their motorcycles in the center of the northern city of Idlib, Syria, on Sept. 10, 2018. Government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have been massing troops for weeks in preparation for an attack on Idlib province, the last major rebel stronghold in the country. The UN has warned that a battle would spark a humanitarian catastrophe.
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In the closing phase of Syria’s civil war, retreating rebel fighters and civilians unwilling to trust the Assad regime have transferred to Idlib province. To defeat the rebel strongholds, the regime and its allies employed massive bombing campaigns and alleged chemical weapons attacks. Now, as forces have gathered around Idlib, its 3 million residents, with nowhere to run, have sought to carve out a normal life while preparing for one last fight. At least, “normal in the meaning of life during war,” Yasser, an Idlib resident, comments wryly. “People are very frightened and preparing for this battle that everyone presumes will take place.” But Tuesday, the prospect of a doomsday battle seemed more remote, after Turkey and Russia announced a deal they said involves creation of a buffer zone between government and rebel forces and the removal of heavy weapons. Fadwa, a native of Palmyra living in a village on the border with Turkey, says she’s skeptical of Turkey’s commitment to civilians, and sounds a defiant note: “Civilians from every region, who fled every battle of Syria, are here.... Even if it means dying here, there is no way I will return to the criminal regime.”

Why We Wrote This

‘Live today to fight tomorrow’ has been the motto of Syrian rebels and their families who, with each successive battlefield loss, have flocked to Idlib for months. An existential moment has arrived.

The sight of his three-year-old twins pains Ibrahim, but he thanks God they are both alive.

Should fears of a full-blown attack on the Syrian rebel bastion of Idlib materialize, Maya, the youngest sibling by just a few seconds, would barely see the horrors that ensue. And her brother Aboud wouldn’t be able to run from them.

A missile attack in April, presumably Russian, shredded the seven-story building where they were living. Maya was blinded in one eye, and her brother sustained a leg injury.

Why We Wrote This

‘Live today to fight tomorrow’ has been the motto of Syrian rebels and their families who, with each successive battlefield loss, have flocked to Idlib for months. An existential moment has arrived.

In any event there is nowhere to go, says their father, a civilian. No choice but to stay and fight.

“Everyone is worried about this battle, and everyone is looking for safety,” the sports coach tells the Monitor, sharing images of his children. “But safety is only possible by bringing down the regime [of Bashar al-Assad].”

On Tuesday, the prospect of a doomsday battle seemed more remote, as Syria appeared to welcome a surprise deal brokered by Turkey and Russia late Monday to avert a “humanitarian crisis.” The plan involves the creation of a buffer zone between pro-government and rebel forces and the removal of heavy weapons from the area. The buffer zone would be patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces, though not until Oct. 15.

The provincial capital of Idlib, where Ibrahim lives, is under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist alliance that includes Al Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate. The alliance is also the dominant force in many parts of this fertile province in northern Syria, which has received thousands of refugees and vanquished fighters from other parts of the country.

The fate of nearly 3 million people living in this region is deeply linked with that of this jihadist alliance, considered a terrorist organization group by the major powers who have a stake in the Syrian war. Its ranks are estimated to be at least 10,000 strong. Initial commentary on the Turkish-Russian deal is that its success hinges on how HTS and other like-minded factions respond, with some suggesting it will be up to Turkey to bring these groups to heel.

Over the past two years, all the surrender deals involving previous rebel strongholds featured the transfer to Idlib of fighters and civilians unwilling to reconcile with or trust the Assad regime.

Fear of chemical attack

The regime and its allied forces achieved their victories through large scale bombing campaigns followed by alleged chemical weapons attacks in an apparent attempt to scare rebels into submission and force civilians to flee the area under attack. The United States, France, and Britain have warned Mr. Assad against using chemical weapons again.

“The factions on the ground, and so HTS, are boosting security measures, and they have the full confidence of civilians (as fighters),” says Ibrahim, not his real name. “But the biggest concern is the air strikes and chemical weapons attacks. No power can protect us from that.”

Despite the extreme sense of pressure in recent weeks, Idlib’s civilians say they are trying to carry on with life as normal. There is nowhere to run but Turkey, which has gone to great lengths to seal its border. “Life is normal but normal in the meaning of life during war,” Yasser, another resident of Idlib City, commented wryly. “Although there is no bombing at the moment on Idlib City, people are very frightened and preparing for this battle that everyone presumes will take place.”

There is little that civilians can do, he says, other than stock up on tinned food. After years of war, they are tired and mostly broke. Several Turkish-backed, Syrian-staffed charities – as well as a few operating thanks to American and British funding according to the account of another aid worker – have either stopped their activities or significantly scaled down.

“Internally displaced persons who came from other parts of Syria have nowhere left to go,” notes Yasser. “They’ll have to confront whatever comes.”

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
A boy tries an improvised gas mask in Idlib, Syria, on Sept. 3, 2018.

Outlet for the wealthy

In anticipation of a potential mass exodus, wealthier natives of Idlib City have made quick trips to the nearby city of Jarablus, which is under Turkish tutelage, in the hope of securing a place to rent. Those who own olive groves and gardens within the fertile province have already set up basic shelters on their lands. Trenches have been dug around towns and caves prepared.

Like others contacted by the Monitor, Yasser hopes Turkey will be able to avert a full-scale attack on Idlib, introduce much needed governance, and eventually succeed in disbanding HTS.

“There have been efforts to draw people away from HTS, but the response is weak,” says Yasser, who like others interviewed did not want his real name published due to fear of the regime and the jihadists that run the town. “People will work with the devil just to be rid of the regime. They will put up with anyone and any of their violations rather than have the regime back.”

The green mountainous territory of Idlib makes it natural guerrilla territory.

The Bab Al-Hawa border crossing between Idlib and Turkey was a major entry point for jihadists drawn to the Syrian conflict. It remains the most active official crossing along the Syrian-Turkish border – with steady traffic relating to trade and humanitarian activities, including the transfer of critical medical emergencies to Turkish hospitals.  While the Syrian side of the border crossing ostensibly has a civilian administration, the first checkpoint after is held by HTS.

The Syrian regime, which has amassed forces to the west and south of the rebel-held territory, wants to regain trade highways connecting Damascus to Aleppo and Aleppo to the coastal region of Latakia.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A truck driver poses for photographers in front of trucks carrying humanitarian aid destined for Idlib, Syria, by a Turkish pro-government aid group, prior to their departure in Istanbul on Sept. 10, 2018. The convoy of 20 vehicles will attempt to reach Syria to deliver basic needs.

Turkey's major role

The concern at the United Nations – echoed by people on the ground – has been that the Russian-backed Syrian regime will bomb jihadists and civilians alike in this final showdown. Turkey has been trying to avert disaster through a combination of diplomacy and military maneuvering. It has also thrown its backing behind the recently created National Front for Liberation.

“With the entry of Turkish forces, we all know that [HTS] will fall apart and people are waiting for this,” says Khaled, another resident of Idlib City whose work is focused on helping youth develop professional and language skills.  “The problem is how to avoid a confrontation [between Turkey and HTS; or between locals and HTS].”

Turkey has significantly beefed up 12 observation points that ring Idlib. These were set up last year under a deal with Russia and Iran that created a “de-escalation zone” and formalized Turkey’s role as the de-factor protector of Idlib.

Turkey is generally viewed positively in Idlib, with many citing its humanitarian role as both the largest host of Syrian refugees and the key broker and provider of cross-border aid. Despite this, pessimists fear a repeat of Aleppo, where Western-backed rebels fell to pro-government troops who had superior support from Assad’s allies.

“Some people are worried that Turkey will play a very negative role,” says Ali, a resident of Saraqeb. “Others think Ankara will be the ultimate protector. I am not particularly optimistic but it is not logical for Turkey, which has such a powerful military and intelligence service here, to wash its hands of this region.”

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, in the Russian resort town of Sochi to discuss Syria. In their second meeting in two weeks, they agreed to create a 9- to 15-mile wide demilitarized buffer zone in Idlib, which their troops would patrol starting Oct. 15.

“Civilians are happy with this deal because it helps avoid a civilian hell,” says Wael al-Harba, an Idlib native with strong networks in the city and rural areas, though he sounds a cautionary note.

“In reality, they’ve created a new Gaza on the Syrian-Turkish border,” he says. “If an operation happens, the refugees will be confined there. Everyone avoids the refugee problem with this deal. No one solved the conflict.”

Civilians who dared rise up

Fadwa, a mother of five living in a village on the border with Turkey, says the world has turned its back on the Syrian people. But on Friday, the village where she lives, like other parts of Idlib, saw women, men, and children come out with the tricolor banner of the Syrian revolution – not the banners favoured by jihadists and Islamists – in a bid to remind the world that there are civilians on the ground who dared rise up demanding “freedom” and “dignity.” Banners elsewhere read: “There will be no solution in Syria without Assad’s fall.”

The Palmyra native, who has been displaced five times since 2011, sees Turkish reinforcements as a sure sign that Ankara will ultimately assert its control on the area, though she’s skeptical of its commitment to protecting civilians.

“This was supposed to be a safe zone,” she says in an interview before announcement of the Turkish-Russian deal. “Civilians from every region, who fled every battle of Syria, are here. My youngest daughter never set foot in our hometown. Even if it means dying here, there is no way I will return to the criminal regime.”

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