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.
“Idlib today is home to more than 2.2 million Syrians, 1.5 million of whom were evacuated here under deals negotiated with rebel forces by the Syrian government and its allies,” Abdullah added. “It is a dense population in a relatively small piece of land. Anywhere a bomb lands, a massacre will be the result. Last week 40 people were killed after a mortar hit a market.”
“The battle for Idlib will be soaked in blood,” the 31-year-old journalist told me.
Between 2015 and 2018, Idlib was considered a “de-escalation zone.” Every time Syrian forces and its allies seized a city, civilians, rebel fighters, and their families who had survived bombardment were forced to choose between “reconciliation” with the Syrian government and evacuation to Idlib. It was an excruciating choice, since reconciliation meant surrender to government forces, which carried with it the risk of imprisonment and worse, including torture and execution.
Today, these same civilians who were previously evacuated to Idlib are trying to find an exit strategy. Unsurprisingly, their options are few.
Majd, a 24-year-old from Ghouta, spoke to me from the Syrian-Turkish border. The borders have been closed since 2014, and Turkish border guards have killed several hundred people trying to cross in the past couple of years, but Majd is willing to take the risk (like several of the people I talked to, he requested that only his first name be used).
“Six months ago I was evacuated from eastern Ghouta with my mother, and I knew this battle in Idlib was going to happen eventually. But I did not think it was going to happen so fast. This time there will be no Idlib to be evacuated to. And I don’t want to experience again what I lived through in Ghouta.” Majd paid a smuggler $750 to be taken into Turkey. He has been waiting for a clear passage for almost a week now.
Yasser, a media activist and a resident of the Idlib village of Hass, told me, “Many people are consoling themselves with the idea that Turkey will protect them. Turkey recently sent military vehicles and soldiers and built a wall on the outskirts of Idlib to separate rebel forces from Syrian government troops. The general feeling is that Turkey will do something and Idlib is not isolated like Ghouta and Dera’a. No one wants to think about the possibilities if Turkey leaves. People are clinging to their last and only straw of hope.”
Yasser continues, “To be honest with you, I am not scared. Over the past seven years we have seen everything from this government. Chemical weapons. Barrel bombs. Scud missiles. What else is going to happen? For now, we don’t know what is going to happen. I am really trying not to think about it.” He tries to emphasize his point by sending me a photo of his shisha pipe, along with a selfie with his friend.
When I ask about the possibility of reconciliation, I receive mixed views. Hadi Abdullah, for example, believes that people here, especially those who were displaced from other parts of Syria like himself, will never reconcile with the Syrian government. “If this is something they would consider, then they would have done that and stayed within their areas and would not have come here,” he said. He believes that people will fight until the very end. This is the last battle.
But Yasser, although he is vehemently against the reconciliation process, admits that his father is willing to reconcile. “He doesn’t want to be killed,” Yasser told me. “He lived through what happened in Idlib during the 1980s [when the government of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, killed thousands of civilians during the ruthless suppression of an Islamist insurgency]. He knows that this government is capable of killing thousands. He is scared.”
Dr. Bassel, a leading surgeon in Ma’arat al-Nu’man hospital, shares the sense of pessimism. “They have been sending people here to this one piece of land so that they can get rid of them all at once. Anyone who is not willing to reconcile with the Syrian government is currently located in this small piece of land. What would stop them from killing all of us?”