AMMAN: Hundreds of displaced Syrians in the east Aleppo countryside held protests this week, demanding the right to return to their towns that were declared military zones when the Assad regime defeated the Islamic State in the area three months ago.
The daily protests began last Friday in two towns located in one of Syria’s most fraught regions: the east Aleppo countryside, an area packed with thousands of internally displaced residents and located at the nexus of a multi-party territorial struggle.
The countryside comprises a 300 sq km swathe of territory stretching from the provincial capital, then east to the Euphrates River and up to the Turkish border. The Islamic State (IS) controlled almost the entire area from 2014 until late 2016.
For months, Turkish-backed rebels, Kurdish-led forces and the Assad regime’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) have raced to capture territory from a retreating Islamic State in east Aleppo province.
The results of the territorial free-for-all, however, are hastily drawn and constantly evolving borders that have left thousands of Syrians displaced, and yet only a few kilometers away from their homes and former livelihoods, half a dozen displaced residents told Syria Direct on Thursday.
“All people want is the right to return home, and we’ll keep protesting until this happens,” Ahmed, a pharmacist from the regime-controlled town of Tadef, told Syria Direct on Thursday from the city of al-Bab, 3km to the north and now under the control of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels.
“There are talks of building new displacement camps, but we’re opposed to this, seeing as our homes are just a few kilometers away,” he said.
Displaced residents from Khafsah protest on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of the Hawar News Agency.
The largest of the week’s protests took place on Wednesday, 25km south of Manbij, a city controlled by the Kurdish-led and American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). More than 100 Syrians marched with signs demanding that the Assad regime allow their return to the town of Khafsah, 7km south.
Syrian state media did not publicly comment on the demonstrations.
SAA forces captured Khafsah, 5km west of the Euphrates River, from the Islamic State in early March. The capture of Khafsah effectively blocked any further area land grabs by the SDF, and gave the regime control over the main water pumping station that supplies Aleppo city. Khafsah also lies just 14km north of the SAA’s active battlefronts against the Islamic State.
The regime is in talks with SDF representatives to negotiate the possible return of displaced residents to Khafsah, two local sources told Syria Direct on Thursday.
“We’ve given the regime a deadline of Saturday to make a decision,” Abu Nader, a member of negotiating committee who participated in Wednesday protests, told Syria Direct on Thursday.
“If they do not leave, then we will resort to armed action,” he said.
In the city of al-Bab, scores of Syrians protested throughout the week against the regime’s nearby military presence.
The demonstrations, which also began on Friday, focused on yet another former frontline town emptied of its original residents and now designated a regime military zone: Tadef.
The Assad regime and its allies defeated the Islamic State in Tadef, 3km south of al-Bab, in February. In the ensuing weeks, advancing SAA and Turkey-backed FSA forces subsequently faced off in Tadef. The two sides exchanged fire over the course of several days, ultimately resulting in a ceasefire and a division of the town into two spheres of influence.
The multiple days of protests outside of Tadef called on the FSA to reassert control over the entirety of the city, even if by force.
The FSA, however, said that starting a fight with the regime is not in their interest.
“We’re working to ensure that there is no fighting between the two sides in the city,” Abu Abdo, an FSA field commander in al-Bab, told Syria Direct. “We would confront the situation with weapons only when we know that there will be no strife, no fallout with residents as a result.”
“We don’t want to fight the regime or create any discord among residents at this time,” the commander said.
Washing dishes outside Manbij, March 7. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images.
In February, Syrian state news outlet, SANA, referred to Tadef as “an important springboard to further advance the combat operations against ISIS in the northeastern countryside of Aleppo city,” shortly after the SAA captured the town. SANA has not reported on this week’s multiple protests around Tadef.
As in Khafsah, residents are unable to return to Tadef. Their homes, their possessions and their farmland, three residents told Syria Direct, are all located behind regime lines.
Some say they have been able to “sneak back into the city under the cover of night.” The scene they described to Syria Direct is one of destruction and looting.
“We are ready to return to Tadef, ready to start the impossible task of rebuilding the city for its residents, but that is only possible if the FSA starts getting rid of the regime’s forces in the city,” Bilal Abu al-Layth, an activist from Tadef currently displaced to the al-Bab countryside, told Syria Direct.
Tadef is an agricultural town, and with the harvest season rapidly approaching, three residents expressed fears over losing an entire year’s worth of crops.
At least 100,000 residents from more than 150 east Aleppo countryside villages have fled their homes since the start of 2017.
The internal displacement is bringing “extremely difficult humanitarian conditions,” Khalil, a lead organizer of the Wednesday protests outside of Khafsah, told Syria Direct. “We’re not being given aid, and we have no assurances that we’ll continue to have a place to live.”
In the al-Bab countryside, activist Bilal Abu al-Layth relayed a similar scenario of displacement camps turning away residents from the town of Tadef.
“There were camps that refused to take in Tadef residents because they were specifically designated for people from other towns, such as residents from a-Zabadani or another one for people from Homs city,” said Tadef activist Abu al-Layth.
"What we need is to return home…to hold onto our land and to our dignity.”