There are tentative hopes that a Russia-Turkey backed deal for a demilitarized zone of about 15-20 km (9-12 miles) around the city of Idlib will hold. So far, some Syrian armed opposition groups have withdrawn heavy weaponry; meeting the conditions for the demilitarized zone. Yet prominent rebel groups have said they won’t abandon their front lines, and the major al-Qaeda linked group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has not vacated the area.
If earlier offensives against former rebel strongholds—such as East Ghouta and Daraa—tell us anything it is that declaring ‘safe zones’ or ‘ceasefires’ eventually lead to regime forces reclaiming an area. On the ground, there is a mix of optimism and cynicism. The stakes are still high, and before the agreement, the United Nations Office for the Coordination Of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) had said that “Idlib could be the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century,” and it could still return to that scenario at any moment.
Idlib in 2011 had a population of 1.5 million people, but as rebel areas have fallen over the last few years, it has become a refuge for a mix of moderate rebels and extremist groups escaping their former strongholds across the country. Its population exploded to approximately three million people. Surrounded by the Syrian military, the Russians, and the Iranians, citizens are still living in fear, and await the developing situation with a mix of defiance, anger, hope, and despair.
With echoes of the 2011 demonstrations, the original residents of Idlib, along with the new, have fervently protested in recent weeks against the Assad regime. After years of brutal oppression following demonstrations across the country, the people of Idlib make their last stand and hope it will be different this time. With lessons in survival, grounded in the harsh realities of living under siege and bombardment, families are doing what they can to endure in their new surroundings. These are some of their stories.
Abu Ahmad is thirty-four years old from Marat al-Numan, a small town in eastern Idlib. He’s digging a trench with the help of civilians to protect the city, a buffer where men can target approaching forces and prevent the regime from advancing on Idlib. Abu Ahmad works everyday for eight hours, breaking only shortly for lunch. “Many civilians help us dig, they also bring us food and water, because they want to protect them from the brutal regime.” Abu Ahmad defected from the Syrian Army in 2012 to be part of the Free Syrian Army. He’s now on the front lines resisting the same army he was once a part of.
Hassan Ahmad is nineteen years old and sells gasoline in the streets to feed his sister’s family. Hassan’s thirty-four years old brother-in-law died from shelling in November 2017 in-front of his own house. Hassan is now responsible for the safety and financial support of his sister and his sisters’ children. His sister has four children—three daughters, between the ages of eight and two—and a six-year-old boy. He carries a walkie-talkie with him everywhere. It’s so that when he hears of an attack he can return home to take his sister’s children to a makeshift shelter; a hole dug under a road.
Um Housain is from the east of Idlib and is sixty-two years old. A mother of seven children, all married, she says “There was a lot of shelling on our village, along with barrel bombs…all kinds of bombing.” They had to leave their homes to protect themselves and their grandchildren. They fled to the nearest Turkish controlled area of Marat al-Numan, east of Idlib city. “The Turkish checkpoint is safe, the regime will not bomb it.” Um Housain left with her children, her grandchildren and fifteen of her neighbors from her hometown. They even have newborn children. All of them live in an olive tree grove with only a few blankets to protect them from the cold. Um Housain added “We only brought what food we could grab, and we have children with us. It’s very hard to feed them and our food is running out.” Um Housain prefers to stay outdoors, living under the trees rather living in a house with the high likelihood of a family member getting hurt from shelling that typically targets buildings.
The National Liberation Front in Idlib have called for removing heavy weapons from the frontlines but they’re still building trenches and in their view are trying to protect Idlib in the event of a break in the ceasefire. For many civilians who fled areas surrounding Idlib, there is the temptation to return to their villages during this quiet period, but many are likely to find their houses destroyed. Civilians in Idlib are trying to move on with their lives, sending children back to school, and working, all in the hopes that the DMZ will hold. The local council in Idlib is imploring international NGOs to help them to rebuild more houses, schools, and clinics. In the meantime, they will carry on with the threat of airstrikes looming, all the while rebuilding their lives in the hope that the international community will agree to safeguard their future.
Rana Riziq is a freelance Syrian journalist.