Civilians see no future in Idlib as Syrian forces tighten grip

‘This is our end; the end for Idlib and its people.’

Trucks carry belongings of people fleeing from Maarat al-Numan, in northern Idlib, Syria 24 December 2019.
Trucks carry belongings of people fleeing from Maarat al-Numan, in northern Idlib, Syria 24 December 2019. (Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters)

The trucks carrying people escaping the intensifying government offensive in Syria’s rebel-held northwest now contain more than just families and clothes: they are crammed full of everything from windows and doors to faucets and water tanks. 

With nearly 300,000 people fleeing bombing and fighting in and around Idlib province since mid-December, civilians in the area told The New Humanitarian they had taken everything they own with them.

Fearing the rebels will be unable or unwilling to resist the approaching forces, some said they had even torched their homes after emptying them, to deny President Bashar al-Assad’s fighters any extra benefits of taking over the territory.

Abu Ghadir – a father of six displaced several times and now staying in the village of al-Bira in northern Idlib – saw no future for himself or the other three million people who find themselves increasingly trapped in Syria’s northwest. “This is our end; the end for Idlib and its people,” he said.

Accompanied by heavy aerial bombing, the Syrian army and Russian forces have been accelerating a months-long ground offensive on Idlib, which is largely under the control of the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

The only adjacent border – with Turkey – is closed, and while more and more people are trying to smuggle themselves across it, others, particularly minors, are joining rebel ranks to fight what they see as a struggle for existence.

The UN says that around 700,000 people have been forced to flee since late April 2019, when the bombing campaign began. It has recorded more than 1,330 civilian deaths in that time.

Like Abu Ghadir, many of those displaced recently in Idlib have had to run for their lives before – from their original homes to the rebel-held enclave and/or within the territory as the fighting has shifted and intensified.

“Unless the international community intervenes, the present foretells the future: the killing, displacement, and starvation of these poor people.”

This latest wave of displacement, however, has been especially difficult. It has coincided with heavy winter rains that have drenched the already overcrowded camps that dot Idlib.

And while some of the displaced have been welcomed into private homes, mosques, and schools, others remain out in the open. Medical resources to help them are thin, compounded by airstrikes by Russia and Syria on hospitals and clinics.

A sense of panic, desperation, and hopelessness is increasingly overtaking residents of Idlib, a region whose inhabitants took pride in their resilience, refusal to surrender to Damascus, and ability to acclimate to violence and extremely harsh living conditions.

“Unless the international community intervenes, the present foretells the future: the killing, displacement, and starvation of these poor people,” said Abu Ghadir, whose hometown of Jarnanaz in southern Idlib fell to regime forces in December.

Unstoppable progress? 

Concerns about resources reaching the extremist rebels (Tahrir al-Sham is listed as a terrorist organisation in the United States, UK, Canada, and Turkey) severely limit available social services and emergency aid to the region.

The new wave of displacement comes after major donors – including the United States, the UK, and the EU – cut, in 2018, the support provided to the health sector, schools and local councils operating in Idlib on counter-terror grounds

The momentum of the Syrian-Russian campaign in the last few weeks has instilled a sense of resigned dread among Idlib residents, with even hardened fighters recognising they are unlikely to be able to halt its progress.

“The regime is advancing daily, taking villages,” said Hussein, a Syrian fighter with the mostly Uighur jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party who spoke to TNH over WhatsApp.

“I can’t escape Syria and I can’t remain here and surrender alive to the regime,” said Hussein, who asked, for security purposes, that his surname not be used. “I pray I will die. I say, God willing, death is near, so the regime doesn’t take me alive.”

Civilians are now fleeing from areas that have not yet come under attack, such as the southern Aleppo countryside, in part based on rumours that government reinforcements could be on their way.

Sarab, a fighter with a Turkey-backed armed faction in Afrin said a camp had been set up for displaced people in the Mount Zawiya region – a highland area of Idlib that hasn’t experienced much violence of late. “It’s true there is no more bombing, but people are afraid and don’t know when their house will be destroyed while they’re inside,” he said.

The collapse of rebel defences has also led locals to question the ability or willingness of armed factions to protect them.

Rumours are also circling that various militias may have handed over territory to Syrian government forces as part of deals reached by the foreign backers of the warring sides, like Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

Sources inside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the National Liberation Front – the two main rebel coalitions now fighting in Idlib – both denied these claims to TNH and pointed instead to heavy losses in their ranks.

Child recruitment

Losses since the offensive began in late April 2019 have compelled rebel groups, particularly Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, to embark on a widespread recruitment campaign in Idlib.

However, some factions appear to have increasingly relied on the recruitment of impressionable young men, many of them minors.

Videos produced by a recruitment and fundraising campaign organised by clerics working for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham show children rushing the stage as preachers rouse locals to join the ranks of the “holy warriors”.

Minors are currently training in several locations in Idlib, according to an official with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham who spoke with TNH and asked not to be identified because of security concerns.

The official said that training camps were underground, due to fear of coalition airstrikes. He said there were special training camps for “cubs”, meaning youth or teenage boys, but would not provide additional details. Another official with the group confirmed that children as young as 17 can join and undergo training.

An official with the “Khaled ibn al-Walid Camp for Cubs”, which aims to support rebel factions in Idlib and indoctrinate its youth, told TNH that children of 14 and older participate in the training. The three training camps it runs are located along the Turkish border in northern Idlib. 

According to the official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the camp’s involvement with training rebel fighters, most of the minors who joined fighting groups after training went to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

More than 800 children under 18 – at least one in five were under 15 – were verified to have been recruited into the war in Syria in 2018, including 187 by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, according to the UN.

There are various international prohibitions against the use of soldiers under 18. The International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute defines “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities” as a war crime

It’s not only impressionable children who assist the rebel factions. Some adults also see no choice but to help the fighters.

Many described the current situation in Idlib as “a war of existence”, due to their inability to escape anywhere else. Some said they had voluntarily joined the “Popular Resistance”, which provides logistical support to the rebels by building trenches and fortifications, and is widely perceived by locals to be linked to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. 

Increasingly cut off from foreign support, the rebel factions heavily tax the population, while also relying on donations. Some civilians give the little they have to support the war effort, gold jewellery or cash. Others cook for the fighters or provide them with tyres to burn to create smoke screens and hide their movements from the always-circling drones.

Get out if you can

But those who can afford it are trying to leave.

As TNH reported in June 2019, the fighting has continued contributing to a booming market for smugglers who ply routes into Turkey.

Based on interviews with 14 locals and smugglers conducted in November and December 2019, the cheapest but most perilous route – it involves over 10 hours of walking and climbing over a border fence with a ladder – costs $350. This is a sum most people in Idlib can’t even dream of having (in addition, a $50 “tax” is paid to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham upon the first attempt). Going through official border crossings can cost as much as $2,500 in bribes.

Due to increasing security measures along the Turkish border, most of those who pay to cross are caught by Turkish border guards and have to try again, paying the smuggler for each attempt.

Giyath, a young man from Saraqeb, southern Idlib who asked that only his first name be published, said he paid a smuggler to take him out of Idlib into Turkey in 2019.

He said his family remains in Idlib but ruled out trying to smuggle them out. He said he only succeeded after several failed attempts to cross into the Turkish border town of Reyhanlı – his final trek across the border took 19 hours.

“Only about 20 percent of those who try to cross make it in each attempt,” said Giyath, who spoke to TNH via Whatsapp, adding that there are additional costs to smugglers once inside Turkey.

But smuggling is out of reach for most, and the unrelenting military campaign, the displacement, cold, and punishing poverty have narrowed the lives of many in Idlib to mere attempts to survive.

Doctors report seeing more cases of malnutrition, particularly among children of the displaced. Omar, a doctor at the only hospital in Bab al-Hawa, next to the border crossing with Turkey, said he has been working without pay for six months. Hundreds of thousands of displaced individuals reside in crowded tent encampments along the border.

“In the recent displacement waves, we clearly began seeing more cases of malnutrition, particularly among displaced children,” he said. “They lost everything and finding food has become of secondary and tertiary importance. Their first priority is to secure a tent and heating, only then food.” 

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