War’s lat­est bru­tal chap­ter

Of­fen­sive in Syr­ian prov­ince has left mil­lions of strug­gling civil­ians trapped be­tween em­bold­ened As­sad forces and die-hard rebels

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KAREEM FAHIM [email protected]­post.com Saeed Eido con­trib­uted to this re­port.

In Syria’s Idlib prov­ince, fighting leaves mil­lions of strug­gling civil­ians trapped be­tween ri­val forces.

Ma­her Shardan and his neigh­bors spent a re­cent af­ter­noon perched on a ridge, at a pop­u­lar spot that looked out on lush farms, towns on Idlib city’s out­skirts — and, in the dis­tance, the armies of sev­eral nations locked in a fu­ri­ous bat­tle.

With tea and cig­a­rettes, they were watch­ing a piv­otal clash over the fate of Idlib prov­ince, en­gulfed by some of the most destruc­tive vi­o­lence of Syria’s nine-year war. The bat­tle­field on the hori­zon was around Saraqeb, a town with the mis­for­tune to be sit­u­ated near the junc­tion of strate­gic high­ways. Like many places in Idlib, it had been emp­tied of peo­ple, and the com­bat­ants — loyal to Syria, Tur­key or Rus­sia — were pound­ing the town’s bones.

War­planes car­ried out airstrikes, rais­ing a row of tow­er­ing gray plumes on the hori­zon. “This is ev­ery day,” Shardan said, as the sound of shelling grew louder. “I sleep with bomb­ing. I wake to bomb­ing.”

In a war with too many ter­ri­ble chap­ters to count, the fighting in Idlib and sur­round­ing ar­eas has been sin­gu­larly bru­tal, spread­ing de­struc­tion over a large swath of Syria while up­root­ing le­gions of its citizens. The vi­o­lence has been drawn out by seesaw clashes that left towns like Saraqeb wasted and empty.

The na­ture of the stand­off in the prov­ince, be­tween em­bold­ened Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces and die-hard op­po­si­tion fight­ers, has made Idlib an es­pe­cially daunt­ing and tragic riddle to solve.

Not long af­ter Shardan and his neigh­bors watched the bat­tle for Saraqeb, the fighting slowed. Rus­sia and Tur­key agreed to a cease-fire ear­lier this month. It came af­ter nearly 1 mil­lion peo­ple in Idlib had been dis­placed and aid agen­cies were warn­ing of an un­prece­dented hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter.

But the cease-fires here never last.

For Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-as­sad, Idlib is a nui­sance, stand­ing in the way of his de­sire to re­assert con­trol over the country and crush the in­sur­rec­tion against his rule. Backed by Rus­sian air power, Syria’s army has at­tempted a se­ries of blis­ter­ing of­fen­sives, in­clud­ing the lat­est, which be­gan in De­cem­ber.

Stand­ing in the army’s way are thou­sands of rebel fight­ers, among them for­eign fight­ers and other ex­trem­ists. For many of them, Idlib is a last stand.

Tur­key, which sup­ports some of the rebel groups, sent thou­sands of troops to Idlib in Fe­bru­ary to pre­vent a fi­nal de­feat of the op­po­si­tion and stop a Syr­ian ad­vance that could send hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees across Tur­key’s bor­der.

Be­tween the com­bat­ants are mil­lions of Syr­ian civil­ians fac­ing as­tound­ing hard­ship: scram­bling for food and shel­ter, search­ing for doc­tors and flee­ing re­lent­less Syr­ian and Rus­sian airstrikes. Those who sur­vive live a mis­er­ably no­madic ex­is­tence, hav­ing fled to Idlib from other parts of Syria only to spend their days flee­ing one bat­tered town af­ter an­other.

In over­crowded camps on Tur­key’s bor­der, an­other men­ace now looms: the novel coro­n­avirus, whose spread through the crowded set­tle­ments is a fore­gone con­clu­sion, Syr­i­ans and aid work­ers say.

Shardan had been try­ing to out­run the gov­ern­ment for months. He fled Maarat alNu­man, in south­ern Idlib, late last year and set­tled in Ariha, about five miles south of Idlib city, un­til heavy shelling on the town sent him and his fam­ily back on the road.

Idlib, a bas­tion of op­po­si­tion to As­sad’s rule in north­west­ern Syria, has braced for a bat­tle since at least 2015, when two milestones — the cap­ture of Idlib by ex­trem­ist rebels, and Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in sup­port of the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment — set the prov­ince on a per­ilous course.

The dan­ger grew as rebel-held ter­ri­tory in other parts of Syria fell to gov­ern­ment forces and res­i­dents and rebel fight­ers from those ar­eas were bused to Idlib, trans­form­ing the prov­ince into a dump­ing ground for As­sad’s op­po­nents and a fre­quent tar­get of gov­ern­ment airstrikes.

An agree­ment two years ago be­tween Rus­sia and Tur­key cre­ated a de­mil­i­ta­rized zone be­tween As­sad’s forces and op­po­si­tion fight­ers and tem­po­rar­ily staved off a Syr­ian gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive. But Moscow and Ankara ac­cused each other of vi­o­lat­ing the agree­ment.

Syria and Rus­sia, de­ter­mined to re­cap­ture Idlib and nearby ar­eas, con­tin­ued to at­tack tar­gets in the prov­ince, in­clud­ing hos­pi­tals and other civil­ian facilities. Tur­key — be­cause it was un­will­ing or un­able — never curbed the in­flu­ence of Hayat Tahrir al-sham, or HTS, a rebel group that was for­merly af­fil­i­ated with al- Qaeda and dom­i­nates Idlib prov­ince, said Da­reen Khal­ifa, a se­nior Syria an­a­lyst at the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group who fre­quently trav­els to the prov­ince.

When Syria launched its first ma­jor of­fen­sive on Idlib, in April last year, gov­ern­ment forces con­fronted “tens of thou­sands of fight­ers that think, ‘ This is it — this is the last bat­tle.’ If they sur­ren­der, it is go­ing to be death,” she said.

It also tar­geted a civil­ian pop­u­la­tion that in­cluded peo­ple who “haven’t seen the state in eight or nine years,” she said. For many, a re­turn to life un­der gov­ern­ment rule was un­think­able. “They think it’s sui­ci­dal to move to­ward the regime, or at best, it’s un­known,” she said.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment made no at­tempt to con­vince them oth­er­wise. Rather, as the army ad­vanced on Idlib over the last few months, it seemed de­ter­mined to drive peo­ple from their homes.

The de­struc­tion was ap­par­ent in the town of Atareb, in the coun­try­side of Aleppo, where rebel fight­ers on mo­tor­cy­cles zoomed past pum­meled gray cin­der-block houses on de­serted streets. Some of its res­i­dents had set­tled in nearby Ad Dana, in tents erected pre­car­i­ously on rocky hill­sides.

On Idlib’s high­ways, its no­mads carry tales of sacked cities and towns.

Ibrahim Ahmed el-saeed drove north on a re­cent evening from Idlib city with his wife and four young chil­dren on a three­wheeled buggy, stacked high with what he said was a quar­ter of all his be­long­ings: mat­tresses, an oven, a cooler, a tool­box and a mo­tor­cy­cle.

Weeks ear­lier, they had fled Syr­ian army forces in south­ern Idlib and tem­po­rar­ily found shel­ter far­ther north near Tur­key’s bor­der. But as new fam­i­lies ar­rived, their tent be­came too crowded, and he and his fam­ily drove back down to south­ern Idlib on the lit­tle buggy, which could man­age about 24 miles per hour. When he ar­rived home, he was greeted by an in­ferno of shelling and airstrikes. So his fam­ily set out on the road again.

Huda Fathul­lah, 40, had fled her home, and then a suc­ces­sion of nearby vil­lages in south­ern Idlib in re­cent months, be­fore set­tling in a sta­dium in Idlib city with seven mem­bers of her fam­ily. “We left every­thing,” she said, adding that she had no idea whether they would ever be able to re­turn home.

The fate of Idlib was in the hands of fight­ers and far-off states. “May God solve it,” she said.

“This is ev­ery day. I sleep with bomb­ing. I wake to bomb­ing.” Ma­her Shardan, one of those dis­placed by fighting in Idlib prov­ince

PHO­TOS BY EMIN OZMEN/MAG­NUM PHO­TOS

TOP: A build­ing dam­aged by fighting on the edge of Idlib city. ABOVE LEFT: Ibrahim Ahmed el-saeed and his fam­ily make their way to­ward the town of Sar­mada af­ter try­ing to re­turn to their home in south­ern Idlib prov­ince, where they were greeted by shelling and airstrikes. ABOVE RIGHT: Some of the be­long­ings piled on their three-wheeled buggy, in­clud­ing mat­tresses, an oven and a cooler.

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