For the past several years, Syrian government forces have mounted a concerted effort to seize all the cities that were lost to Syrian rebels since the beginning of the conflict, in 2011. First to fall was the city of Homs, then eastern Aleppo, and more recently eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, and Dera’a, in the south. By all accounts, the Idlib governorate, in the far north, is next in line.
Over the course of the past week, Al Mayadeen TV, which is linked to Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militia that has been fighting on the side of the Syrian government for years, has been broadcasting news segments about the upcoming battle. “The troops are on a new mission—they will liberate Idlib from the black flags and terrorism,” one news anchor stated recently.
Meanwhile, Syrian-government air forces or their Russian allies have been dropping flyers and pamphlets on Idlib villages like Saraqib and Kafr Nabl, which have been free from government control since late 2012. One flyer advises people to collaborate with the Syrian Arab Army against the “terrorists.” Another shows photos comparing how the country was before the war with what has happened since. The flyers ask people to help the army restore their prewar smiles.
The recent developments have filled many residents of Idlib with fear, uncertainty, and uneasy anticipation. Will this holdout rebel enclave face the same fate as eastern Aleppo and eastern Ghouta, both of which suffered terrifying, blood-soaked government sieges? In the case of an all-out government assault, where will the civilians go?
“They will burn Idlib and say they are fighting terrorism, while we here are the ones who suffered and fought against these radical groups,” Abdullah said, referring to grassroots revolts against jihadi factions that had seized almost total control of the region in 2016. “Only two months ago, I received a death threat from HTS [Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Qaeda faction formerly known as the Nusra Front]. Still, in this situation, they can make the time to terrorize any activist who speaks against them,” Abdullah told me. Two years ago he survived an assassination attempt that killed his colleague, Khaled al-Essa, in Aleppo. Nusra claimed responsibility for the attack.