Life has returned to normal in Idlib in northwestern Syria, the country’s only rebel-held provincial capital. The reason for its stability and recovery is the de-escalation deal reached with Russian, Turkish, and Iranian backing in 2016, which led to a cessation of Russian and Syrian airstrikes, and the decrease of bombings.
The head of the fire service in the town of Kafr Takharim in the Idlib countryside, Bassam Abu Ali, says that the main role of the fire service before the deal was to rescue civilians caught by the constant Russian aerial bombardment, and to extract the wounded from bombed areas while putting out fires caused by the strikes. But since the truce, bombing have stopped. The fire service has directed its efforts towards the reconstruction of damaged and destroyed buildings in the city.
It appears from Abu Ali’s comments that the rescue services is undergoing a fundamental change in Idlib, which faced hundreds of Russian airstrikes since Moscow became militarily involved in September 2015. Abu Ali says that the services ran a wall-painting campaign to beautify the city, an initiative not possible previously, as walls could be bombarded at any moment. The services also restored a city roundabout and its historic clock tower, and put street signs back up.
Ala’ al-Zeir, a twenty-two year old volunteer for the local civil society organization called Violet, says that the group fixed the clock and the roundabout, removing rubble left by the fighting with the help of six hundred workers and expert engineers in coordination with the local council. Violet’s campaign was labelled “Idlib Spring,” and it aims to make the city more attractive by fixing the damage brought by the war to its buildings and streets. The campaign has also renovated most of the city’s major roundabouts and is set to complete renovation for the rest of its key infrastructure, al-Zeir said. He adds that, two months ago, his organization launched a campaign offering money for labor to give job opportunities to the city’s poorest families.
Mohammad Abu Jibril, a civil society activist who works for an Idlib-based humanitarian organization that focuses on people displaced from other provinces, says that the de-escalation deal has improved security across Idlib. He adds that people returned to their daily lives and already started repairing previously abandoned homes; which they had now returned to. Shops have re-opened their doors again without fear of renewed bombing, says Abu Jibril, adding that “we have had some relief from the scenes of war and massacres that we used to see everyday due to the bombing of the city.”
Civil society organizations, which now have a new scope of action thanks to the deal, have been involved in a wide range of tasks: from repairing the city’s key infrastructure to providing psychological support to children and women affected by the war. Idlib City Council has been supportive of these efforts. The Council, Abu Jibril adds, has also been able to organize its first free elections.
As life returns to what residents call the city of olives, Yazen, a twenty-six year old internet cafe owner, has also returned to repair his house that he fled a full year ago due to the war. He says that he returned after the air raids subsided, which used to carry out dozen of daily strikes, forcing him to flee with his family. Now, he says, he has returned to the city of his childhood.
The easing of the bombing has also affected universities in Idlib, says Ahmad al-Masri, a twenty-seven year old student at Idlib University’s engineering department. The ceasefire has allowed students to return at least in part to their studies, which have been interrupted by the bombing that targeted schools and universities. This, al-Masri adds, have put students’ lives in danger and forced them to discontinue their studies. He explains that going back to university made him feel that his life was back to normal. He has started meeting his friends, going out to the market, and playing soccer with his peers.
The relative calm remains dependent on the truce holding across Idlib province to keep the city out of aerial bombardment. This, ultimately, is subject to the politics between the three guarantors of the de-escalation deal.
Ali al-Dalaty is a Syrian civil society activist and journalist.