‘If the calm holds’: After agreement over the fate of Syria’s northwest, displaced civilians cautiously return home to proposed buffer zone

Airstrikes hit Latamna in early September. Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defense-Hama

AMMAN: When Bashir al-Ahmad entered his hometown of Latamna in Syria’s northwestern Hama province last Friday, he gazed down the main avenue of his southside neighborhood where his former home, and countless others, had been folded in on one another like cardboard boxes.

Though al-Ahmad’s family first fled nearly five years ago, the latest round of pro-government bombardments earlier this month had left the neighborhood he grew up in almost unrecognizable.

“I found the city badly destroyed,” says al-Ahmad, describing how civilians have turned to networks of natural caves for shelter in lieu of homes still standing. “Most of the families living in [Latamna] now live in underground caves and grottos.”

Spending their days sheltering in a cave beneath a neighbor’s home with his wife, widowed daughter and grandchild, the 47-year-old says he was lured back to his hometown by the promise of a recent Russian-Turkish agreement establishing a tentative buffer zone along the frontlines separating pro-government forces and rebel factions around opposition-held Idlib province.

Announced last week after an 11th-hour diplomatic summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in the Russian resort city of Sochi, the 15- to 20-kilometer-wide “buffer zone” appeared to stave off a looming pro-government offensive that many observers had expected would strike Syria’s last rebel-held stronghold.

Latamna, in the northern reaches of Hama province, sits squarely in the middle of this proposed no-man’s land.

“The imposition of the safe zone agreement and the actual end of the bombardment on the region...encouraged me to return,” al-Ahmad tells Syria Direct, describing how his family arrived just two days after the agreement was announced.

Despite the numerous threats to the agreement’s longevity—including an array of hardline Islamist rebels bent on foiling a deal, as well as the competing geopolitical interests converging around Idlib—displaced Syrians are already returning across demarcation lines that still largely exist only in the abstract. Several displaced civilians tell Syria Direct they’re heading home in the hope of reclaiming houses abandoned during years of bombardment, despite the fact many are returning to discover towns where even the most basic infrastructure has been decimated by bombing.  

Even then, it’s not clear if the Russian-Turkish agreement will hold.

Return, but to ‘non-existent’ infrastructure

Abdul Hay al-Manaf fled from Latamna several weeks ago, during the most recent wave of bombardment, taking his wife and three children with him as they sheltered in a friend’s home some 80 kilometers away in Idlib city.

“The last brutal bombing campaign put all of the hospitals out of service, and terrified both the young and old. My children were terrified,” he says. “That’s what pushed me to flee.”

The bombing might have stopped for now, but living conditions in his hometown will take a long time to improve, al-Manaf says—having made the journey back into Latamna alone on Monday to inspect what was left of the family home.

“Latamna isn’t 100 percent habitable right now,” he says. “Services are almost non-existent.”

“But I think that if the calm holds, life will gradually return—that’s what we’re hoping for [at least].”

The scale of returns to towns and villages within the buffer zone has been hard to quantify. A member of the Syrian Civil Defense in Jisr a-Shughour, a strategically crucial city laying just north of the proposed buffer zone, estimated that around 75 percent of families had returned since the Sochi agreement—despite the city being virtually deserted during the most intense bombardments last month.

“Local councils and civil actors are working to encourage people toward their villages by providing services within means—like water pumping, street cleaning,” he said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with press.

Other local officials based in towns in and around the proposed buffer zone meanwhile estimate the number of civilians returning to be in the thousands.

According to Ali Huwaari, head of Latamna’s local council, around 600 families have returned to the city and outlying countryside since the buffer zone agreement was announced. While he is encouraged by the growing stream of civilians reclaiming their place in the community, he says that living conditions remain dire.

“In the city, it’s death and deprivation. Whichever way you look at it, we are desperate,” he says. “No water, no schools, no electricity.”

Overwhelmed after weeks of shelling by pro-government forces, the local council issued a desperate plea for help over social media last week, offering free lodging to humanitarian and civil society organizations willing to descend on Latamna to assist with the relief effort. Of particular concern, the statement said, were critical shortages of potable water.

Hardline Islamists ‘embedding themselves further’

In the weeks leading up to the agreement, the Syrian government and its allies launched a weeks-long bombardment on rebel-held areas of Idlib and Hama provinces. During the bombing, nearly 40,000 civilians were scattered across farmland and countryside, as well as to a sprawling network of displacement camps along the border with Turkey.

And while the skies over Syria’s northwest have gone quiet since last week—an all-out offensive seemingly averted for now—the actual stipulations of the agreement have left some doubting its longevity.

Before the October 15 deadline, rebel groups are expected to remove all heavy weaponry from the entirety of the declared buffer zone, while hardline Islamist groups—including Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)—must disarm and fold into the National Liberation Front, a Turkish-backed rebel conglomeration in the northwest. The onus for that complex process largely lies with the Turkish government.

“This part of Syria will be free of weapons,” claimed Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, adding that the withdrawal of “radical groups” from the region had already begun, without elaborating.

In Jisr a-Shughour, close to the northern edge of the buffer zone in Idlib province, HTS still maintains a powerful presence. Although the hardline coalition is yet to release a statement stating its position on the agreement and expectations that it will disarm, senior members of the group have sent defiant signals via the Telegram messaging app, clearly voicing defiance and a willingness to fight.

“It’s difficult to see how HTS will allow itself to lose the overt power that it holds over civil society in Idlib,” says Nicholas Heras, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC.

“The big picture in Idlib is that organizations like HTS, that have had strong leadership ties with Al-Qaeda, are embedding themselves further.”

Ultimately though, many civilians returning to homes on the frontline may be motivated less by faith in the complex small print of the recent agreement than by an increasingly desperate desire for home.

Father-of-three al-Manaf says that his family’s life in exile is simply no longer tenable.

“We’re sick of displacement and being on the move,” he tells Syria Direct.

“God willing, the situation will stay as it is, and I’ll return and settle for good with my family here.”

With additional reporting by Basheer al-Barry and Abdullah al-Hasan.

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut.