War’s latest brutal chapter
Offensive in Syrian province has left millions of struggling civilians trapped between emboldened Assad forces and die-hard rebels
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
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.