With Idlib on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, where will citizens go?


Amid international tugs-of-war and field preparations, Idlib citizens are asking the world to stop the Syrian war machine backed by Russia and Iran before it kills and destroys more than four million civilians, half of whom are displaced.

17 September 2018

Demonstration held in Kafr Nabl on September 14, 2018 (© SyriaUntold)
Huda Yahya

Huda Yahya is a journalist and activist from Idlib countryside. She holds an Islamic degree (ijazah) in History.

Translated by: Pascale Menassa

“Idlib is our land. We will live in it and die for it.” 

“Idlib is the smaller Syria that will liberate the bigger Syria.” 

“The people want to topple the regime.” 

“De Mistura and Assad are partners in crime and in forced displacement.” 

The citizens of Idlib province shouted out these slogans and raised their voices, renewing their protests in which they called on neighboring countries and the international community to look to their hopes and aspirations and prevent a war that is knocking on their doors.

Incidents and military developments in Idlib, north Syria, are picking up speed and have become the talk of the town, after news surfaced about readiness for a battle between the regime and its allies to control the last of the strongholds of the Syrian opposition.

Idlib’s citizens remain calm and continue to lead their lives normally, amid concerns and caution vis-à-vis the imminent battle. The battle depends on international understandings and conflicting stances of influential countries in the Syrian situation, like Russia, Turkey and Iran. Citizens took to the streets; waving the flags of the revolution and Turkish flags and demanding Turkish tutelage, while condemning the indiscriminate aggression of the regime and the conspiring international community.

“If this battle happens, a full-blown humanitarian disaster will result. What hurts the most is that, after Idlib, citizens have nowhere else to go,” Omran al-Abrash (40), a farmer, told Syria Untold. Abrash expressed his concerns about the future.

“I expected the regime forces to crawl towards Idlib, especially after they seized the whole area under the opposition control including Ghouta, Daraa and others. The regime regained confidence and felt its power again, although it would have proved ineffective, were it not for the help of its Russian and Iranian allies,” he added.

Nevertheless, Abrash does not think of displacement at all because he is bent on standing his ground and defending his land, at any cost.

Hussam al-Husseini (29), construction worker, does not want to be displaced either. He clings to his land and country.

“Perhaps I should fear what is to come, if the battle happens, but my faith in God is great. I believe their plans will be foiled, and I hope Turkey that would face the most damage due to the resulting refugee waves will be able to do something. In the worst case scenario, which is war, I will keep defending my land and house, and I will join the fighting factions. I seek victory or martyrdom. We will not return to a life of humiliation and insults, especially after having tasted freedom and dignity through our rightful revolution. We will not offer reconciliation, and we will not flee. We will defend our rights and our revolution until the last breath,” he told SyriaUntold.

Like others who will not leave their houses even if the battle breaks out, Husseini is making the necessary preparations to face the situation. He is digging shelters near the houses and equipping them with furniture, water and foodstuffs to last for more than two months. He is also stocking up on medication, first aid kits and some protective masks for his wife and children in case chemical attacks expected from the regime and his allies strike.

Rana al-Ahmad (30), a teacher, could not hide her optimism due to the presence of Turkish observation posts in different areas in Idlib. She believes they reassure citizens that a war on Idlib won’t break out.

She added that, if the attack happens, she will not risk her life and her children’s.

“I will seek refuge in the border areas, and I will try to enter the Turkish territories, as soon as opportunity permits because staying under the shelling and destruction is suicide,” she said.

Ahmad, like many citizens, refuses reconciliation with the Assad regime and Russians for two reasons. For one, she does not trust the regime, which hasn’t been reliable over the years of the revolution and has reneged on its promises and agreements. She explained, “We saw how Ghouta citizens signed reconciliations with the regime, and the latter betrayed them and stabbed them in the back. It executed some people, arrested others and recruited many. Second, citizens do not want to return to slavery, oppression and injustice that the regime has been using for decades. They saw its crimes, bloodiness and damage of the country during the revolution years.”

“Under the pretext of terrorism, they kill civilians, shell schools and hospitals and destroy the infrastructure, not to mention displacing citizens. We are sick of this double standard policy of the international community while dealing with Syria, as opposed to other crises,” rights activist Alaa Zamo (38) said to express his condemnation of the Russian attack on Idlib under the slogan of expelling Jabhat al-Nusra.

Zamo does not deny his dislike for Jabhat al-Nusra’s behavior, but he believes that a declaration of war on more than four million civilians is unnecessary. There are other ways, like peaceful negotiation to disband the organization, expel it from the country or merge it with moderate opposition factions with the help of Turkey. Many of Idlib’s citizens support Zamo and refuse war. They also refuse reconciliation with Assad’s regime and his Russian ally, as they were the primary reason behind the murder of Syrian people, their arrest and displacement. Assad’s regime “lost legitimacy when it killed us, our dreams and rights. What reconciliation are they talking about? And, what is this nation warmth they mention?”, Zamo asks mockingly.

In a detailed analysis of the public and political arenas, media activist Manhal Barish (35) said, “Everyone had eyes on the Tehran Summit that was held Sept. 7, 2018 to find a solution banning a military attack on Idlib. But, Russians’ stubbornness foiled the talks that ended without any result, as opinions on Idlib varied. While Turkey asserted that Idlib’s security affects its own security since they share borders, Russians insisted on going through with the operation. The military operations that were launched a few days ago and included the regime’s shelling of areas in south Idlib countryside and north Hama countryside are just provocations to push Turkey to find a solution that suits it in Idlib. Turkey will take the reins to settle the Idlib situation.”

Barish indicated that the military reinforcements that Turkey sent to its posts distributed in Idlib are insufficient. He believes Jabhat al-Nusra must be disbanded, because it is the pretext of the regime and Russians to attack Idlib and fight terrorism.

He said that the next stage will resemble political settlement including handing over medium and heavy weapons and integrating the fighters with the regime army. But, Turkey “cannot protect Idlib forever.”

Barish noted that order will be restored in Idlib, but the control dynamic will differ, with Turkish posts present. Civilians “do not have any political decision-making power, be it with Syrian political figures, or at the higher level of the coalition [the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces]. The coalition itself has no say, and whatever Turkey decides, it implements, while waiting for the outcome of international understandings,” he added.

Factions get set

Expectations aside, military factions in Idlib are preparing themselves to engage in a fateful battle.

“To be or not to be,” Free Syrian Army (FSA) leader Mohammad al-Abdo (39) told SyriaUntold. He noted that they have chosen resistance and resilience, and military arrangements are at their peak to prepare for confrontation. All factions are on the same page in this regard.

“We have a joint operations’ room including and uniting all factions in the liberated north. This is our last battle, and the last of the revolution’s strongholds. The battle will be decisive,” he said.

Abdo indicated that most factions have overcome their differences and united their ranks and commands under the National Front for Liberation to fight the regime and its allies and defend Idlib. Abdo talked about a military operation that will not be restricted to defense, but will include attack.

He mentioned “unconventional” methods that will be adopted to pressure the regime. He noted, “We have learned a lot from previous experience in Ghouta, Daraa and other cities about the regime and reconciliation. This stage won’t be like previous ones, and Idlib won’t be like its predecessors. The revolution of the people will triumph, and our revolution will not fall and will defeat its enemies, God-willing.”

Demonstration held in Kafr Nabl on September 14, 2018 (© SyriaUntold)

Civil society also prepared

Civil society also discussed preparations that are underway to alleviate the impact of the anticipated military attack on civilians.

Mustafa al-Haj Youssef (30), director of Civil Defense in the province told SyriaUntold that the civil defense teams are ready for any emergency, as usual. They have put plans convenient for the status quo. He did not disclose more information to ensure the safety of the cadres and their centers that were regime targets.

“We are ready to deal with any relief or rescue situation and to help the displaced reach temporary shelters,” he said. Youssef hoped the attack would not happen, as it would “displace more than three million people who have no idea where to go; portending the biggest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.”

He blamed the international community for this disaster because it did not prevent its occurrence.

Obeida Dandoush (32), response coordinator at Syria Relief and Development Organization, described the medical preparations, like equipping hospitals, relief teams and mobile clinics that will head to areas of displacement on the Turkish borders.

Haitham al-Khatib (35), head of the local council of Kafr Nabl city, said that the cadres of local councils will coordinate with all humanitarian organizations and with civil defense to help civilians and transport them to relatively safe areas. The farthest point from the battle would be the safest, as he explained.

Amid international tugs-of-war and field preparations, Idlib citizens are asking the world to stop the Syrian war machine backed by Russia and Iran before it kills and destroys more than four million civilians, half of whom are displaced.

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