Thousands of civilians marched to the Syrian Turkish borders last Friday. They travelled from different towns and villages in Idlib governorate to the Bab Al-Hawa crossing with Turkey. “Protect us or open the border” was their angry message to Turkey and to the world, protesters stormed the borders and crossed to the Cilvegözü customs office on the Turkish side where they were met by the Turkish gendarmerie who fired live bullets in the air and tear gas to disperse them.
Idlib is the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition and is being bombarded since last April, over six hundred thousand civilians have been displaced as a result. Turkey is meant to be the guarantor state who protects the interest of the opposition and who negotiated on behalf of the opposition with the regime backers, Russia and Iran, in various rounds of Astana peace process. But the Syrians in Idlib feel they are on their own, and they fear that Idlib, like so many other areas in Syria that were once controlled by the opposition, is left to face the barrage of the regime on its own and will eventually fall.
The Syrian regime and its Russian backers launched a ground offensive on August 8th, and recently they managed to recapture Khan Sheikhoun, the strategic town that suffered a sarin gas attack in 2017. By taking Khan Sheikhoun, the regime completed its siege of Northern Hama countryside, and it is a matter of time until these areas fall under its control. Yet, the campaign has not stopped, the Syrian army and its Russian backer are trying to advance further north trying to capture Maraat Al-Numan which came under a heavy bombardment in the last few days.
Syria Untold reporter in Idlib talked to many who attended the demonstrations and asked about their motivation for participating and about their demands. The public opinion among the residents of Idlib is divided, some saw these demonstrations as the last means they have to make the world hear their voices, while others saw it as a futile expression of frustration.
Thousands have been displaced by the latest wave of bombing this last week. Idlib is home to more than three million civilians, half of whom are displaced from other areas in Syria that were once controlled by the opposition and fell under the regime control again. Turkey already generously hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and have closed its border in 2015 and started constructing a wall to prevent more Syrians crossing over.
In a heart-breaking video posted online, a father who fled Maraat Al-Numan two days ago sobs. He stood there with his two kids unable to hide his helplessness or his tears. “0:04 The barrel bombs are causing us immense suffering, we are unable to sleep at night [because we are afraid of being hit], look at both my kids, I brought them with me today from Maraat [Al-Nouman]. I swear we left everything behind. I swear God, please have mercy on us! We are here to enter to Turkey, and we refuse to go back. Either end this war, stop the barrel [bombs], or let us in. Enough trading with our suffering. Why are you doing this to us [Turkey]?! 0:25”
Samih Al-Othman, a 38-year-old man who was displaced from Kafranbel, described to Syrian Untold the demonstration at the border, “massive crowds marched to the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing. We walked for a few kilometres before reaching the borders carrying our banners and demonstrating to demand an immediate intervention from the international community to end the massacres and to stop the regime targeting civilians. In the case of continuing to fail to stop the regime and its Russian backer, then open the border and allow people the right to flee to safety”.
Soon the anger boiled, and the demonstrators broke through the lines of buses blocking the roads and the chains of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTC) border guards and stormed into the Turkish side.
Mohammad Al-Salim, a 28-year-old man who was displaced from the town of Hobait in southern Idlib countryside. He was among the first wave of men to cross to Turkey, “ we stormed the border and crossed to the Turkish side, we were trying to cross into Turkey when the Turkish gendarmerie targeted us with tear gas in an attempt to disperse the protesters and force us to retreat. There were numerous cases of suffocating, and many were taken to the nearby hospital. Yet the momentum continued, and the Turks then resorted to shooting live bullets and targeting the protesters with water cannons. That is when everyone started retreating”. Al-Salim said while the crowd of protesters stormed the Turkish borders and advanced 400 meters before being forced to retreat. During the confrontations, few people actually managed to escape and cross and continued into Turkey.
In one of the video that widely spread on social media, protesters stand right across from the Turkish gendarmerie, waving the revolution flag and branches of olive and chanting “our strife is for God, not for power nor for wealth” and “Erdogan is the enemy of God”. The two angry chants are reminiscent of the early days of the Syrian uprising in 2011, but the protesters used to direct them against Bashar Assad. (See the video at 1:20 minutes)
Many protesters expressed fury and felt that the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had abandoned Idlib to its fate, some went as far as burning his image.
But the majority kept pleading to the Turkish president to either protect them or open the borders. Everyone expressed condemnation and anger against Bashar Al-Asaad and its Russian backers. One man interviewed by Macro Media Center (MMC), an activist collective who document the news in Idlib said in a video posted on YouTube.
“0: 23 In the name of the God Almighty, massive crowds came here, and they are all displaced [from areas that fell to the regime or being heavily bombarded] like Khan Shiekhoun and ٫ Kafr Zita and Marrat Al-Nouman. They all came here to deliver a message to Erdogan: We pray that you fulfil your promises, or else you are complicit with Bashar Assad, Rouhani and Russia in the ordeal of our forced displacement, with the implicit agreement of moving us to repopulate the Kurdish areas. As we speak, Tal Abyad is being emptied of its residents, and the aim is to move those who are being displaced from Khan Sheikoun to Tal Abyad and the other [formerly Kurdish- held] areas that are being liberated now. We are not an army whose sole job is to protect your border. We demand that we stay in our land and homes. 1:19”.
Abdul Rahman Al-Khlief is from Idlib city and he is one of the organizers. He told Syria Untold the reasons they now called for this protest ,“we thought it is vital to revive the peaceful demonstrations in an attempt to make our voices heard by the international community. We have stopped demonstrating a while ago because we feared the systematic targeting and bombing of any civilian gathering in Idlib or its countryside. However, demonstrations and protests remain the strongest weapon civilians, like us, have to try and stop the bloodshed in our areas.”
For days before the demonstration, local monitoring rooms broadcasted messages on short-wave radios, and known activists participated in a wide-scale campaign calling on everyone to join in the demonstration on Friday. They also called on Syrians abroad to demonstrate in front of Russian embassies and consulates.
Yet the public opinion was divided, some welcomed these demonstrations, while others rejected them. Khaled Al-Khaliel, a 44-year-old displaced from Khan Sheikhoun, believes that demonstrations are vital in protecting the civilians in Idlib now. “At the beginning of the revolution, there was no military force defending the protesters, yet the regime didn’t succeed in repressing us and we persevered, the demonstrations continued and increased in number. The people of Idlib need to take to the streets again, that is the best way we can express our rejection of the occupying forces of Russia and the regime and their ongoing slaughter of children and women”.
But not everyone agrees, and many refused to respond to the calls for demonstrating. Many argue that demonstrations are futile against the widespread destruction and the big number of casualties, Syria Untold spoke to some who said that calling for this demonstration now is merely giving the Syrian people a false sense of hope. Anwar Al-Khani is a 32-year-old who was displaced from Marrat Al-Numan, he said “All of this is part of a plot to displace our people. Thousands of demonstrations in the past eight years didn’t make any difference in the bitter reality we find ourselves in today. And this call for demonstrating now is merely to give the people the illusion that Turkey, as a guarantor, will respond to their demand. The truth is Turkey did “respond” and the Russians announced a ceasefire after the protest. But the timing of this demonstration and ceasefire came only after the regime forces and their backers had already encircled the Northern Hama countryside. So now, and according to the undisclosed agreements between Russia and Turkey that I believe stipulate allowing the regime to retake the Northern Hama countryside, the conditions of the agreement are completed. It is time to announce a new truce in order to negotiate a new deal”
Russia has announced a ceasefire in Idlib hours after the demonstration.
The Syrian Humanitarian Response said the number of those who were displaced within Idlib since the beginning of the military campaign in April has reached “more than 93274 families, totalling 606272 civilians. The number of casualties is 859 civilians from Idlib, Hama countryside and Aleppo countryside. Last week alone more than 20 civilians died as a result of the continuous bombing, including three children”.